Azerbaijan: the next ex-Soviet revolution?

Opposition leaders question the validity of Monday's parliamentary elections in this oil-rich nation.

Just one day after the last ballot was cast in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections, opposition parties, backed by foreign observers, are calling the vote invalid and threatening massive street rallies to force a replay of the vote.

The government of President Ilham Aliyev, in a closely watched campaign, promised a free and fair vote on Sunday. But Monday, the main opposition party, Azadliq, said the results in four-fifths of the country's provinces should be invalidated.

Ali Kerimli, a leading opposition candidate, Monday cited violations observed from 113 of the 125 districts during the vote. With the opposition galvanized by "massive violations of the law," he said, the country would "witness one of the biggest rallies in the post-Soviet sphere," echoing those in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

"There will be clashes or peaceful demonstrations," said Azeri journalist Kanan Aliyev, "under very tense conditions."

After weeks of tension leading up to the vote, the capital was quiet Monday. But the promised protests raised concerns about potential violence and instability in the oil-rich nation, a secularized Muslim state in which the United States and other Western powers have a growing strategic interest.

With almost 93 percent of the precincts counted, candidates from the New Azerbaijan Party were leading in 62 races, with independents - who could include ruling party loyalists - ahead in 42 races, and opposition candidates leading in 10, according to the Central Election Commission. Most set to win seats were incumbents. But the US Agency for International Development, which monitored the election, indicated different results in a number of races.

"It pains me and my colleagues to report that the progress noted was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count," said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) of Florida, the parliamentary assembly president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

For Aliyev, who followed his father to power in 2003, these elections were a chance to gain international legitimacy. Roundly criticized for an election that year that was widely seen as rigged, Aliyev agreed under pressure to a number of concessions presented by the OSCE and the Council of Europe to ensure that greater transparency. Voters' fingers were inked, and international observers were invited in.

But Azadliq said 665 observers from 42 countries had witnessed more than 1,500 instances of local authorities instructing voters to support pro-government candidates, and almost 1,300 examples of ballot-stuffing. They also claimed that a new antifraud system to ink voters' thumbs with ultraviolet markings had been abused on more than 1,700 occasions.

"These were the most falsified elections in Azeri history," the opposition bloc's campaign manager, Panakh Guseinov, said.

On voting day, many of the polling stations in Baku's contested districts appeared to be following protocol carefully, inking voters' fingers and checking voter lists.

Observers and lawyers from each party or candidate representative sat in a line, counting the number of voters and noting any discrepancies.

But hours later, the observers found themselves on the street, closed out by police while the head of the central election committee counted the votes themselves.

In the constituency of Sheqi, 185 missing ballots reappeared, stamped with the name of the incumbent ruling party candidate, tipping the vote in the incumbent's favor.

In Yasamal, a district in Baku, a government candidate won after reports that the ink could be wiped off, and that he had paid $100 to backers. "You can ask anybody in our area, and no one will say that they voted for him," said Araz Imanov, an independent observer at the station.

By the morning it was clear that the official results did not corroborate with the USAID-sponsored exit poll.

The official Central Election Commission issued a report stating that 65 seats had gone to the government, 30 to independents, and only 5 to the opposition.

Yet an initial comparison with 30 districts exit polled, none in areas with strong opposition leaders, found more than 15 went to Azadliq or nongovernment independents.

Opposition and independent candidates are confident increased international attention will push the government to recognize their concerns.

"I'm not scared," said Mr. Imanov, repeating a refrain heard from an increasing number of Azeris.

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