Baku, 7 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In a hall packed with local and international observers and journalists, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Alcee Hastings delivered a damning indictment of the election process.
"Yesterday's elections did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards of democratic elections," Hastings said.
The applause his statement received spoke volumes about the all-pervasive sense of frustration that Azerbaijan has missed an opportunity to raise its electoral standards.
Hastings, a U.S. congressman from Florida, said that while it had been a competitive election in most places and that there had been greater voter choice than in the past, interference from governing bodies and media bias favoring incumbents had prevented the creation of equal conditions for all candidates during the campaign period.
"While voting was generally calm, the election-day process deteriorated progressively during the counting," Hastings said. "It pains me and my colleagues that the progress heralded was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count."
Leo Platvoet, head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), put it even more strongly, saying: "In the assessment of our observers, 43 percent of the ballot-counting process was bad or very bad."
Ambassador Geert Ahrens, who is head of the OSCE observer mission, said its final report would be issued six weeks after the completion of the electoral process. Its preliminary findings, however, are sure to be an embarrassment to the Azerbaijani government.
According to its preliminary figures, the ruling Yeni Azarbaycan party won 63 seats with 96 percent of the vote counted, while the main opposition bloc, Azadliq (Freedom), had won just six. These appeared seriously at odds with results coming in from three different exit polls -- and wildly at odds with the claims of the opposition.
Azadliq called a press conference today to say that it had detailed massive falsification of the vote in 100 of Azerbaijan's 125 constituencies and was calling for the vote to be declared invalid. Isa Qambar, leader of the Musavat Party, which forms part of the Azadliq bloc, said this week would witness one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the post-Soviet space.
He announced that Azadliq would start its rally on 9 November, and claimed that the government of Azerbaijan refused to sanction the rally that was initially scheduled for tomorrow.
The next few days could be critical for Azerbaijan. The opposition says it intends to protest peacefully, but the government's record of violently breaking up any unsanctioned rallies raises the prospect of dangerous clashes. Much may depend on how many people the opposition persuades to take to the streets. Only a massive turnout is likely to intimidate a government that in the past has shown no hesitation to use force.