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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Azerbaijan votes amid fears

06-11-2005 BAKU Reuters - By Margarita Antidze  - Azerbaijan was voting on Sunday in a parliamentary election expected to give the ruling party a big majority, with Western governments hungry for the country's oil hoping vote fraud and violence would not wreck the ballot. Opposition parties promised rallies this week in protest against what they predicted would be widespread election fraud, although analysts say there is unlikely to be a repeat of the popular revolts that followed disputed polls in fellow ex-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia. The threat of violence hung over the election, with the interior minister saying radical elements in the opposition might try to provoke the police and warning any illegal protests would be stamped out. "The campaign was successful. Equal conditions were created for all candidates and that gives me hope the election will be democratic and transparent," President Ilham Aliyev said as he voted at a polling station in Baku's School No. 6. "The will of the people will be expressed in these elections," he said. Azerbaijan is in a South Caucasus region criss-crossed with smoldering separatist conflicts. Western governments are anxious for stability, especially with a pipeline expected to begin delivering oil to world markets from next year. Aliyev -- who succeeded his father as head of state -- runs 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. For the first time, election officials in the 5,000 polling stations were spraying indelible ink on voters' thumbs to stop them voting twice. It was part of a package of anti-fraud measures adopted days before the vote. Western officials said the measures gave them some hope 43-year-old Aliyev was at least attempting to reform his administration and the vote would be cleaner than in the past. However, they said Aliyev was still struggling to stamp his authority on an old guard in his ruling elite which does not want to loosen its grip on power and may try to use strong-arm tactics in the election. The arrests late last month of two ministers and several other senior officials on charges of plotting a coup underlined the tensions inside Aliyev's team. "Ilham Aliyev is being pulled in two ways," said a Western diplomat. "He does want to move forward with managed reform and doing so with the party he has got and with the interests he has got is not that straightforward." Police released a campaign manager with the Azadlyq bloc, the main opposition force, after holding him for three days on disorder charges, his party said. The opposition said the arrest was the latest in a campaign of official harassment and interference that made a fair vote impossible. "In the event of mass falsification, we will definitely call on the people of Azerbaijan to protest against the unjust result," Ali Kerimli, one of a trio of Azadlyq bloc leaders, said as he cast his ballot. "But (the protests) will not be violent. We ... will do everything we can so the authorities do not have the slightest excuse to use force against the people." The last nationwide election, in 2003, was followed by violent clashes between police and opposition supporters. At least one man was killed. Interior Minister Ramil Usubov told Reuters police will intervene if the opposition tries to hold protests without first getting official approval -- which is often withheld. "We have information the opposition ... is preparing provocations," said Usubov. "We will intervene decisively to stop all attempts to disrupt public order. Opinion polls show most voters support the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party. Though many people complain of official corruption, they fear handing power to the opposition will jeopardize economic stability. Polling stations close at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) with first results expected early on Monday. There is no minimum turnout.

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