Voters choose new parliament in Azerbaijan

Associated Press
Electoral poster of a parliamentary candidate, Quliyev Ulvi, is displayed on a tea house in central Baku, Azerbaijan, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010. Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan are due on Sunday. (AP Photo/Manoocher Deghati)

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Nearly 700 candidates competed Sunday for the 125 seats in the single chamber of the parliament of Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic that is under the firm hold of President Ilham Aliyev and his party.

There were a wide range of parties represented, and about half the candidates ran as independents, but the main rivalry was between Aliyev's YAP party and the opposition block Musavat.

Central Election Commission chairman Mazahir Panahov, speaking on state television, expressed his hope that the elections would be transparent and democratic. Preliminary results were not expected before Monday.

The Musavat leader, however, said he doubted the counting of the vote would be fair.

"The opposition's chances are high, but high in terms of the number of votes it will get," Isa Qambar said after casting his ballot. "But who ends up in parliament will depend not on the will of the people but on the will of those who sit in the presidential administration."

The Musavat and other opposition parties complained Sunday that their observers were blocked from some polling stations.

Qambar said the opposition would consider calling a protest rally for Tuesday, but few expect a repeat of the mass protests that followed the last parliamentary elections five years ago and what appeared to be widespread fraud.

Recent opposition rallies have drawn only several dozen activists, and the election campaign was far quieter than those of past years.

This has been attributed in part to rising living standards in Azerbaijan, a major exporter of oil and gas, and political apathy.

Lamiya Hasanova, a 35-year-old civil servant, said she voted out of a sense of civic duty.

"Honestly, I don't expect any real changes because I think that these elections will change little in the country," she said.

Political analyst Arastun Orudjev said many people no longer believe their votes matter. They have lost faith in the government, and the opposition has failed to offer an alternative, he said.

"There is a disconnect between the government and the people, and the opposition is going through a crisis of its own," Orudjev said. "After the parliamentary elections of 2005, the opposition should have found new ways of fighting."

Azerbaijan's oil fields and its location straddling a corridor for westward oil and gas exports from Central Asia — bypassing its neighbors Russia and Iran — have made it a focus in the struggle between Moscow and the West for regional influence.

Aliyev, 48, took over in 2003 from his father, the late Geidar Aliyev, who had led Azerbaijan first as Communist Party boss during Soviet times and then as president from 1993 to 2003.

After winning re-election in 2008 amid opposition allegations of vote rigging, Aliyev pushed through a constitutional referendum to scrap presidential term limits, allowing him to rule indefinitely.

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