November 6, 2005

Azeri ruling party set for win, opponents protest

By Margarita Antidze

BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan's ruling party has won Sunday's
parliamentary election with a reduced majority, private U.S.
exit poll said, but the opposition immediately claimed fraud
and vowed to hit the streets in protest.

Western governments eyeing the ex-Soviet republic's oil
resources are nervous any protests could spill over into
violence and instability. But analysts say a repeat of the
popular revolts that followed disputed polls in fellow
ex-Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia is unlikely.

The ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party will take 56 seats in the
125-seat parliament, down from 75, according to the exit poll
by pollsters Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research
and paid for by private businessmen.

The main Azadlyq opposition bloc, which led calls for
protests, received 12 seats. The rest went to independents and
minor parties, many of them aligned with the government.

Yeni Azerbaijan claimed victory, saying it had regained its
majority. Official results are expected later on Monday.

Violence remained a threat, with officials saying radical
elements in the opposition might try to provoke police and
warning any illegal protests would be stamped out.

Azerbaijan is in a South Caucasus region crisscrossed with
smoldering separatist conflicts and Western governments say
they want to see stable, democratic rule.


Aliyev -- who was elected as president after his father
died in 2003 -- 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 sprayed 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.

"The campaign was successful. Equal conditions were created
for all candidates," Aliyev said as he voted.

Mazahir Panahov, Chairman of the Central Election
Commission dismissed opposition claims of widespread election
fraud and intimidation.

"In all the election went well," he told a news briefing.
"There was nothing during the election that was especially

Western governments were expected to reserve final judgment
until a 600-strong election observer mission from the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gives its
verdict on the conduct of the vote on Monday.

Diplomats said they believed 43-year-old Aliyev was trying
to reform his administration and had voiced cautious optimism
the election would be less corrupt than previous votes.

But 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's aftermath.

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.


The opposition Azadlyq bloc said its workers had witnessed
widespread ballot fraud -- including the theft of ballot boxes
-- police intimidation and arrests of its supporters.

"As we predicted there were widespread violations during
the election," Ali Kerimli, one of three leaders of the Azadlyq
bloc told a news briefing. "We will start a peaceful struggle
to have the results of these rigged elections overturned," he

"Today's election was not a reflection of the people's
will," Kerimli said.

The last nationwide election in 2003 was followed by
violent clashes between police and opposition supporters.

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.

(Additional reporting by Lada Yevgrashina and Rufat