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Azerbaijan: Parliamentary Vote Gauges Democratic Development

Azerbaijanis leave a voting booth in Baku (epa) The people of Azerbaijan have been going to the polls today in an election that many have described as a make-or-break moment in the country's democratic development. Election observers have criticized the preelection campaign, in particular the severe restrictions placed on freedom of assembly and the violence used by the police in breaking up opposition demonstrations. However, others point to positive developments -- among them the fact that the opposition has had free airtime on state and public television and the arrival of hundreds of international observers to monitor the vote.

Baku, 6 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The elements could scarcely have been less kind -- as dawn came to Azerbaijan, the rain swept in across the Caspian Sea on a howling wind that stripped the trees of leaves and left early voters scurrying for shelter.

Little surprise then that early turnout at polling stations was low.

By 10 a.m., two hours after voting had officially begun, just 30 people had made it to the station at Secondary School No. 8 to cast their ballots. But gradually the early morning trickle turned into a flow.

President Ilham Aliyev was among the morning voters.

"The whole election process was positive," Aliyev said. "During all the stages electoral law was completely implemented. Equal conditions were provided for all the candidates. And, in general, the election process was smooth and peaceful."

As part of the attempt to ensure that falsification of the ballot is kept to a minimum, the U.S. State Department has commissioned the U.S. Agency For International Development (USAID) to conduct an exit poll in 65 of Azerbaijan's 125 constituencies. These were selected at random to avoid accusations of political bias. Dean White from the United States is one of those who has been asking Azerbaijanis how they cast their votes.

"So far, there have been a few oddities here and there but nothing too unusual," White said. "We're having a pretty good response rate. We've not had that many refusals of people saying they don't want to participate, so it's been okay."

However, there is a lot of bitterness among opposition and independent candidates at what they call the illegal and unfair methods used by the government to control the election. Opinion polls had Osman Gunduz -- an independent candidate who runs a communications business -- well ahead with less than a week to polling day. From his office in central Baku, he told RFE/RL what happened next.

"An American company, PA Government Sources, published polls of places where the exit polls were going to be carried out -- among them my constituency," Gunduz said. "I was in first place, about 35 percent ahead of my rival. That made it impossible to falsify the vote sufficiently to cover such a difference. But straightaway afterward, I received a telegram from the courts saying they'd received a complaint that my people had bribed voters."

Gunduz was subsequently crossed off the list of candidates -- a fate shared by some 500 other candidates in the week before the vote.
"In some cases they're using water instead of ink to mark fingers, in others they're not using the inking equipment properly. There have been cases of ballot stuffing and we have registered this." -- Ali Kerimli

U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish spent the day touring Baku's polling stations, lending his support to the observers and personally checking for irregularities. In the Xatai district of Baku, a young observer gave him a small glimpse of what many say is going on behind the scenes when she told him that a candidate was at the polls putting pressure on people.

But asked what he thought of an election process that has been widely criticized by international observers and human rights activists alike, Harnish declined to pass judgment.

"This has been a long time. Elections are not just election day. There's been eight months of preparation and there's been ups and downs," Harnish said. "But I think if you weigh the positives against the negatives, there's been a lot of good preparation for this election. And one has reasons to hope that November 6th is a historic day."

Ali Kerimli is one of the triumvirate that heads the Azadliq bloc, the main opposition challenger to the ruling Yeni Azarbaycan Party (New Azerbaijan Party). He was dressed for victory on Sunday, in a crisply cut blue suit and orange tie -- symbolic of the people's revolution that swept Ukraine earlier this year. But he claimed the government was doing its utmost to falsify the vote.

"We have had information about more than 100 violations," Kerimli said. "There are many ways you can do this. In some cases they're using water instead of ink to mark fingers, in others they're not using the inking equipment properly. There have been cases of ballot stuffing and we have registered this. But according to the information we have received the vote so far favors us despite all their efforts to falsify it."

When asked about the allegations, Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian head of the observer mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States, said such statements are to be expected from members of the opposition.

Getting an accurate picture of how people really have voted may not be possible until the release of exit polls. USAID has promised to issue its verdict soon after polling stations close.

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RFE/RL's complete coverage of the November 6, 2005, legislative elections in Azerbaijan and their aftermath.

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