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Fraud Alleged in Azerbaijan Election

November 7, 2005

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) _ The ruling party took the lead in Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election, according to the official count and exit polls, but monitors reported irregularities and the opposition vowed to fight to overturn what it called fraudulent results.

The vote, which came amid mounting tension between the government and opposition, was closely watched for signs of improvement on flawed past elections that sparked violence and destabilized the oil-rich, strategically located ex-Soviet republic. The West has a strong interest in stability in the Caspian Sea nation, which sits on a critical axis between Russia and Iran.

With votes from nearly 93 percent of the precincts counted, candidates from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party were leading in 62 races, with independents _ who could include ruling party loyalists _ ahead in 42 races and opposition candidates in 10, according to the Central Election Commission.

``We will fight for the results to be annulled, since the elections were not democratic,″ said Eldar Namazov, head of the opposition New Policy bloc. ``The authorities have demonstrated their medieval behavior.″

An exit poll sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which surveyed voters in 65 electoral districts, varied widely from official figures in some races.

In the Subail district of Baku, for example, the election commission gave the victory to ruling party candidate Fuad Muradov, saying he won 22.3 percent of the vote. The U.S.-funded exit poll gave the win to Kerem Kerimov, deputy head of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan, with 27.8 percent. The election commission said Kerimov had won just 19.88 percent.

No one from USAID could be reached for comment on the disparities between the poll data and official numbers. But they could give ammunition to opposition charges of fraud _ or conceivably to the Central Election Commission, which contends that opposition activists were involved in conducting the poll. USAID denies the accusation.

The streets of Baku were quiet Monday following a tense campaign that featured nearly weekly opposition rallies that were often forcibly broken up by police. But on Sunday night, Ali Kerimli, one of three main opposition leaders, said the voting was ``clearly falsified.″

``These elections could not reflect the will of the Azerbaijani people,″ he said.

The deputy chairman of the Musavat party, Vurgun Eyub, said seven opposition party officials had been detained in a polling place outside Baku and that opposition observers had been thrown out of 23 stations just before polls closed.

The independent Center for Election Monitoring, a domestic group funded by international grants, said that at some polling places, election workers were not marking voters’ thumbs with invisible ink used to prevent repeat voting.

Among the complaints was ballot-box stuffing, and the Central Election Commission was looking into reports that one person was discovered entering a polling place with 15 ballots already marked.

Center for Election Monitoring representative Anar Mammadli said officials at some polling places were openly supporting specific candidates.

The ruling party’s executive secretary, Ali Akhmadov, pronounced the elections ``transparent, just and democratic.″ He said that whatever violations were recorded were not enough to affect the results.

The election pitted President Ilham Aliev’s New Azerbaijan Party against the Azadliq (Freedom) coalition, the New Policy bloc of technocrats, and an array of smaller parties and independent candidates. In a new advance for Aliev’s family, which has dominated Azerbaijan for the past several decades, his fashionable wife, Mehriban, won a parliamentary seat with more than 92 percent of the vote.

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Associated Press reporter Aida Sultanova contributed to this report.

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