West Slams Azeri Elections

BAKU (Reuters)–Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections fell short of democratic standards–Western election monitors said on Monday–boosting opposition calls for it to be overturned as fraudulent.

The opposition quickly announced plans for street protests after Sunday’s vote in the ex-Soviet country handed victory to the ruling party backing President Ilham Aliyev–though analysts ruled out any Ukraine-style revolution.

But the sharp words from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were sure to disappoint Western governmen’s which had hoped the vote would lay the foundation for stable–democratic rule in the oil-producing Caspian state.

Three busloads of police in full riot gear were stationed on the capital’s Freedom Square–the scene of violent clashes two years ago–as OSCE observers handed out their verdict.

"The shortcomings that were observed–particularly during election day–have led us to conclude that the election did not meet Azerbaijan’s international commitmen’s on elections," said Alcee L. Hastings–head of the OSCE’s observer mission.

"It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count," Hastings told a news briefing. His words were softened by an OSCE statement that pointed out some improvemen’s in the way the vote had been conducted.

With almost all votes counted–the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party and an array of mostly pro-government independents and minor parties had a huge majority in the 125-seat parliament.

The main opposition Azadlig bloc had won only five seats.

Aliyev leads a country of 8 million Muslims wedged between Russia and Iran. Corruption is endemic and the country has yet to hold an election judged free and fair by the West. But Aliyev had shown signs of moving toward gradual reform.

An Azadlig leader said Western criticism would help the bloc’s cause. "The fact the OSCE is criticizing the elections in Azerbaijan will help strengthen the position of the Azeri opposition," Ali Kerimli told Reuters.

"People will have hope that the results of these elections can be overturned and our struggle will be given new impetus."

He said the first in a promised series of peaceful protest rallies would be held in Baku on Wednesday–after authorities overruled opposition plans to hold the protest on Tuesday.

Weak Opposition

Analysts however said the defeated opposition was too weak to repeat Ukraine’s "Orange Revolution," though many Aliyev opponents wore orange in imitation of the peaceful uprising that ousted the Ukrainian ruling elite in December 2004.

Helped by windfall revenues from its oil exports–the Baku government pays wages and pensions on time and the economy is growing–cushioning Aliyev’s administration against discontent.

"What the population is interested in is: ‘Have I got enough to live ? Can I get my kids into schools without paying a bribe? What is the healthcare system like?’ Things like ‘Can I take part in a demonstration?’ do not resonate with the population at large," said a Western diplomat.

Earlier–Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov dismissed allegations of fraud. "There was nothing during the election that was especially alarming," he said. Aliyev succeeded his father as president two years ago. The vote continued the dynastic tradition: his wife made her political debut by winning a seat with 92 percent of the vote and his uncle Jalal was also re-elected.

A US government-funded exit poll broadly confirmed the ruling party’s decisive win–with only minor discrepancies between it and the official result.

One US official said before the vote that Azerbaijan would qualify for "an elevated strategic relationship" with Washington if it held a relatively clean vote.

Aliyev has never received an invitation to visit the White House–even though other leaders in the region have.

EU Reaction

Radio Free Europe reported that the EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said earlier today that she regrets reports of electoral violations in Azerbaijan’s legislative elections.

Competing political forces in Azerbaijan continue to disagree over the fairness of the voting–which election officials have suggested will be won by the ruling party as opposition leaders claim electoral fraud.

"While we are still not knowing all elemen’s in order to draw our conclusions–we understand there are reports of some violations of election procedures and also of the rights of opposition candidates that have been occurring throughout the country–especially in provincial and rural areas," Ferrero-Waldner said.

However–Ferrero-Waldner also said the European Union takes note of "some improvemen’s" in the electoral process.

She singled out a presidential decree introducing the marking of voters’ fingers with indelible ink to avoid multiple voting.

Ferrero-Waldner said the EU would issue a definitive assessment of the elections once the OSCE–which fielded monitors in the polls–released its report.

Ferrero-Waldner also told RFE/RL that a decision on the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy action plans for the three South Caucasus countries can be expected "very soon." The action plans have been delayed following Azerbaijan’s authorization of commercial air links with Northern Cyprus.

EU officials have previously warned that if Azerbaijan does not ban the flights–action plans will only be announced for Armenia and Georgia–but that any decisions would be deferred until after the Azeri elections.

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