Mon, Nov 07, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Azerbaijan votes in key elections

REDUCING FRAUD The parliamentary elections are seen as a test of the president's willingness to share power, although elections have never passed muster in the past

AFP , BAKU

Azerbaijanis voted yesterday in parliamentary elections seen as a key test of President Ilham Aliyev's willingness to relax his grip on power in the energy-rich and strategic ex-Soviet republic.

Some 4.66 million registered voters were to choose among 1,541 candidates competing for 125 places in the Milli Mejlis, or national assembly, currently dominated by the pro-government Yeni Azerbaijan Party.

Azerbaijan's 8 million people have never seen an election meet international standards. The opposition warns that if this poll is no different, Aliyev's ruling clan will face mass unrest.

Aliyev, who succeeded his ex-KGB father Heydar Aliyev to the presidency two years ago in a vote widely seen as fraudulent, insists that everything has been done to ensure a free and fair contest.

About 2,000 Azeri monitors and 1,291 foreign observers fanned across the country, which holds major offshore oil reserves in the Caspian Sea and is strategically situated between Russia and Iran.

"Today is a very important event in the history of Azerbaijan. The future of Azerbaijan depends on your votes," the chairman of the central electoral commission, Mazakhir Panakhov, said in a live Azeri television broadcast.

In the run-up to election day, the government bowed to Western pressure and pushed through measures aimed at reducing fraud, including the marking of voters' fingers with indelible ink to prevent the casting of multiple ballots.

However, the election campaign was marred by accusations of government intimidation and censorship. Opposition rallies were severely restricted, and several were broken up in violent police actions. Within 48 hours of polls opening, two top opposition campaign managers were briefly detained by police.

The opposition Azadliq bloc says it will mount peaceful protests similar to the "Orange Revolution" last year in Ukraine, where huge crowds demonstrating against election fraud brought down the government. Opposition leader Ali Keremli warned that in the event of mass violations, "we will call on the people to fight."

But Aliyev has promised to crack down on any unrest. Taking few chances, authorities detained a group of visiting leaders of Ukraine's revolution -- here to monitor the poll -- at Baku's international airport late on Saturday.

"There's no mood for colored revolutions in society," said Panakhov, the chairman of the Central Election Commission.

Authorities appear to be attempting to limit media coverage of the kind which helped to galvanize support for Ukraine's opposition last year.

Foreign television companies were barred from bringing in their own transmission equipment, limiting the possibility of live coverage of any protests that may erupt, a source in broadcasting said.

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