International election monitors said on Monday that Azerbaijan's parliamentary election on Sunday had been tainted by fraud and abuse and failed to meet democratic standards. The monitors expressed Western disappointment that the nation had not lived up to the pledges of its president to hold a fair vote.
The unsparing assessment, issued by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, lent credibility to a bloc of opposition parties that had already declared the vote fraudulent. And it moved this small, oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea toward the possibility of clashes between opposition members and the police, who have dispersed antigovernment street rallies this year with force.
The bloc, known as Azadliq, the Azerbaijani word for freedom, vowed to hold peaceful demonstrations beginning today, seeking to overturn many results in districts throughout the country.
"These elections were falsified," said Ali Kerimli, the head of one party, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. His own bid to return to parliament ended on Sunday night when the police and election officials seized ballots and election documents indicating that he was leading in several polling stations.
Kerimli framed the showdown in the broadest terms, saying that the issue was whether Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim nation between Russia and Iran, would move toward European traditions or remain a highly corrupt post-Soviet state.
The rising tensions posed problems for President Ilham Aliyev, who had staked his personal credibility on repeated assurances that the vote would be fair, and also for the Bush administration, which had embraced Aliyev as a reliable oil exporter and an ally in counterterrorism efforts.
In Washington, a US State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, noted "some improvements" over previous ballots, but said, "There were major irregularities and fraud that are of serious concern." He urged the government of Azerbaijan to investigate quickly and thoroughly.
Britain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, also urged Azerbaijan to investigate the allegations promptly.
On Monday, Aliyev played down the report, barely acknowledging it in an address to the nation on state television. He briefly and incompletely referred to the assessment of the observers, and never mentioned that they found the vote undemocratic and that they expressed deep disappointment in his government.
Instead, he used his appearance to announce that the election had been free, fair, and transparent, and a credit to Azerbaijan's commitment to democracy.
He also said that seven or eight of the 125 parliamentary districts had reports of violations that would be investigated, but assured the public that "the will of Azerbaijan people has found its reflection in the elections."
State television did not broadcast the assessment of the independent observers, choosing to show congratulatory statements from election officials, from observers commissioned by the state and from Russia. It was not clear whether the Azerbaijani public knew of the independent monitors' dim view of the conduct of the government.
With almost all votes counted, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party had won 63 of 125 seats, according to the central election commission, while the opposition had won six.
The remaining seats were won by independent candidates and members of small parties, many of which were loyal to the government, ensuring that Aliyev would maintain his strong hold over the body.