BAKU -- Dirty tricks, media crackdowns, and a sex-tape scandal -- it's been a humdrum election campaign in Azerbaijan.
The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party is set to sweep the November 7 parliamentary elections, which commentators describe as the most predictable since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The increasingly marginalized opposition is already crying foul and warns that the ruling party will fix the vote to consolidate its near-total dominance of the country's political life.
"There is a lack of any expectations and hope for this election. It's the least competitive parliamentary election ever in Azerbaijani history," political analyst Shahin Abbasov says. "The opposition is weaker than ever, there is no real alternative and no real competition in this election. I think the election's results are predetermined."
Unsurprisingly, the public has so far expressed little interest in the poll and voter turnout is expected to be low.
A new law that significantly shortened the campaigning period, coupled with limited news coverage of the election run-up, also means eligible voters remain poorly informed about their voting options.
"There is indifference, people don't know who the candidates are, because freedom of assembly, freedom of campaigning, and freedom of speech are restricted," Abbasov says. "Voters don't even know which candidates are running in their constituencies."
Reports of irregularities ahead of the vote have been widespread. Opposition candidates accuse the authorities of preventing them from meeting voters and of tampering with their campaign posters.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), while praising the Central Election Commission's efforts to improve voter lists and educate the public, said they had received "credible" reports of intimidation of voters to withdraw their signatures in support of certain candidates.
The organization cited reports of direct pressure on candidates, their relatives, and their representatives, and expressed concern over the widespread disqualification of contenders. About two-thirds of candidates from the main opposition bloc, Popular Front/Musavat, have been denied a place on the ballot.
An OSCE report blamed the Central Election Commission, seen as close to the ruling party, for arbitrarily disqualifying candidates without informing them which supporting signatures were invalidated or giving reasons for the invalidations. The report said President Ilham Aliyev and his Yeni Azerbaycan Party had unfairly dominated news broadcasts during the campaign.
The election run-up was also sullied by a smear campaign against opposition newspaper editor Azer Ahmedov, who appeared in a sex video broadcast on the pro-government television channel Lider TV. The October 25 broadcast, titled "The Naked Truth of the Opposition," claimed the video had been distributed by a rival opposition group.
Concerned by the media clampdown, international human rights organizations have released a joint declaration accusing the Azerbaijani government of jeopardizing free elections by intimidating journalists and rights activists. "You can't have a free and fair vote when the people who report the news are in jail or have been harassed into silence," Human Rights Watch charged in an October report.
'No Worthy Competitors'
Foreign governments, by contrast, have stopped short of openly condemning the country's authoritarian trends.
Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas, is key to Europe's hopes of reducing its energy dependence on Russia, and the opposition says the country's strategic importance to the West has cushioned Aliyev's regime against calls for democratic reform.
Azerbaijan is also a transit route for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
In an unprecedented show of protest, the Popular Front/Musavat opposition bloc last month refused to meet visiting representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Azerbaijani authorities have nonetheless sought to dispel criticism of the election process.
"We believe that all conditions for free, transparent, and democratic elections will be created for the parliamentary elections," says Ali Hasanov, the head of the presidential administration. "The voters will freely cast their ballots and the parliament will be composed of the democratically elected people."
The Yeni Azerbaycan Party has also denied wrongdoing. Responding to the OSCE report, spokesman Husein Pashayev put the party's dominance on the ballot down to the lack of "any worthy competitors."
On the ground, however, campaigning violations are routine and often take place in broad daylight.
During an October rally for Ahad Abiyev, a candidate loyal to the ruling party, several young boys told RFE/RL they had been paid to participate in the meeting.
"I was asked to carry Azerbaijan's banner," one said, and that he had been promised just over a dollar to do so.
RFE/RL captured footage of a man openly handing out money to underage rally participants.
Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar says the opposition is bracing for more dirty tricks on election day. "Employees of state-funded organizations have been instructed to take several outfits with them on election day in order to change clothes and not to be noticed by observers," he says. "These people will be involved in the merry-go-round method."
The so-called "merry-go-round," a fraud system observed in previous Azerbaijani elections, involves voters casting several ballots each at different polling stations.
Hundreds of foreign observers have been accredited to monitor the vote. But a new visa regime introduced in mid-October has prevented many foreign nongovernmental groups of entering the country in time for the election. In addition, nongovernmental observers have complained about the Azerbaijani authorities' reluctance to grant them accreditation.
Denmark's Support Initiative for Liberty and Democracy (SILBA), a group specializing in election monitoring in former Soviet countries, has been unable to receive accreditation for its foreign staff.
SILBA's Jakob Knudsen believes the authorities in Baku deliberately obstructed the group's monitoring mission.
"We called them almost every day, several times a day, we e-mailed them, and we never heard anything either from the Central Election Committee or from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They took the calls but put the phone down when they heard my voice, they didn't respond to the e-mails," Knudsen says.
"I managed to get through a couple of times, and each time I was told I needed to speak first to the Central Election Committee or first to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were sending me from one place to another."
A Family Affair
The opposition has also denounced unprecedented nepotism in this year's poll.
Parliament has always been close to the ruling elite, but the list of candidates related to top officials is particularly long this year, threatening to make politics in Azerbaijan even more of a family affair.
As many as three of the president's relatives are running this year: his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, his uncle Calal Aliyev, and the husband of his cousin, Vasif Talibov.
Other well-connected candidates include the minister of emergency situations' father, the transport minister's brother, the presidential chief of staff's son-in-law, the brother of the head of the State Committee for Management of State Property, and the cousin of the president of Azerbaijan's State Oil Company.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report