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Observers Report Flaws in Azerbaijan Election

Mission lists problems such as tampering with results and recording information in pencil. The opposition keeps up calls for a new election.

November 08, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Azerbaijan's bitterly disputed parliamentary election drew sharp criticism from a Western observation mission Monday as the opposition in this predominantly Muslim country geared up for a campaign to annul the results and hold fresh balloting.

The mission, led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, listed a sweeping assortment of flaws in the electoral campaign and Sunday's balloting.

"I had very much hoped for a better election and consequently a more positive assessment. Unfortunately, the results of our observation made this impossible," Geert Ahrens, head of the OSCE mission, said during a news conference.

Monitors judged the vote-counting process as "bad" or "very bad" in 43% of the polling places observed, citing such practices as tampering with results and using pencils to record official returns.

Tabulation of results at the district level, where winners are determined, was assessed as "bad" or "very bad" in 31% of the cases observed.

The OSCE mission did not estimate to what degree the violations had affected the outcome of the election for 125 seats in a unicameral parliament.

The opposition Freedom bloc declared the results fraudulent just hours after polls closed and swiftly announced plans for a protest rally.

Bloc leaders said authorities had granted authorization for a three-hour rally Wednesday afternoon, and promised that the demonstration would be nonviolent.

Party insiders, however, indicated that they expected many of the protesters to refuse to disperse after the three hours were up. That opened the prospect of confrontation if authorities decided to use police to clear the rally site, a large square outside the city center. The government has said it will not allow any postelection disruption of public order.

Any threats to stability in Azerbaijan are of particular concern to the United States and Europe because the former Soviet state is of growing importance as a source of oil. It is the starting point for a nearly completed $3.4-billion pipeline that will deliver oil from the Caspian Sea region to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.

Both the government and the opposition are basically secular and pro-Western. Some government critics, however, warn that if democratic parties in Azerbaijan are denied opportunities for normal development, radical Islamic forces, currently weak, could rise as the main opposition.

With nearly all votes counted, official results showed the ruling New Azerbaijan Party winning 63 seats, the Freedom bloc getting six seats and other opposition parties set to win four seats. Independents and minor party candidates, many of them aligned with the government, were expected to take almost all of the remaining 52 seats.

A U.S.-backed exit poll conducted in 65 of the 125 districts cast doubt on the accuracy of the official results. The exit poll indicated that the ruling party would win 12 seats, Freedom bloc candidates five seats, and independents or minor party candidates 16 seats. The remaining 32 races were too close to call, but in 22 of those districts, Freedom bloc candidates had a strong enough showing to be among the possible winners.

In some races the exit poll results contradicted official results. In the Subail district, official figures gave victory to ruling party candidate Fuad Muradov with 22% of the vote, whereas the exit poll projected the winner to be Freedom bloc candidate Kerem Kerimov with 28% to Muradov's 20%.

Central Election Commission chairman Mazahir Panahov acknowledged significant problems in some districts and said that results could be corrected. "The commission may revise the results of parliamentary elections in 10 districts, given evidence that they are questionable and may not correspond to reality," he told reporters.

In general, however, electoral officials and ruling party leaders defended the election as honest and democratic.

"The Azerbaijani people expressed their will in the elections in a transparent and free atmosphere," President Ilham Aliyev said on state-run television. "According to some information, violations occurred in seven or eight constituencies on election day.... The Prosecutor General's Office has been instructed to investigate them most seriously....

"But there were not too many incidents of this kind."

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