Loyalists of President Ilham Aliyev swept the board in the November 7 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, amid allegations of serious violations.
The Central Election Commission said that with 90 percent of the vote counted, Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party increased its share in the 125-seat parliament to more than 70 seats.
Loyal candidates appeared to have taken all the rest of the seats.
The Central Election Commission, the ruling party, and election monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) declared the vote free and fair.
But Western observers said that the elections, though "peaceful" and with opposition participation, were marred by "serious violations. The monitors, led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that "despite all the efforts made, the country needs to do much more to make progress in developing a truly pluralist democracy."
Wolfgang Grossruck, who led the short-term OSCE observer mission, made the assessment at a press conference in Baku today.
He said that while the vote was "characterized by a peaceful atmosphere and all opposition participated in the political process, these elections overall were not run in a way to constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of the country."
President Ilham Aliyev (file photo)
The leaders from the main opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front/Musavat bloc went even further. They deemed the vote illegitimate, saying it was marred by massive fraud aimed at consolidating the ruling party's near-total dominance of the country's political life.
"Our general opinion is that these elections were not free and fair, were not transparent and democratic," Isa Qambar, the leader of the Musavat Party, told a press conference today.
"Taking into consideration all these facts, the APFP-Musavat bloc does not recognize the election results and we denounce as illegitimate the parliament to be formed on the basis of these elections," he continued. "We demand to annul the election results and to hold new free and fair elections in order to form a legitimate parliament."
At the same press conference, Ali Kerimli, the chairman of the bloc's other party, the Azerbaijani Popular Front, denounced the establishment of what he called "a monarchy in Azerbaijan, characteristic of the Middle Ages," which he said "has feudal thinking and unlimited authority."
Eighty-one members of parliament retained their seats. Three relatives of the president won seats: his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva; his uncle, Calal Aliyev; and the husband of his cousin, Vasif Talibov.
Official turnout was just over 50 percent.
In their assessment today, observers from the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament said limitations of media freedom and freedom of assembly, and a deficient candidate-registration process "further weakened the opposition and made vibrant political discourse almost impossible."
They noted problems with vote-counting, with almost a third of polling stations observed rated "bad" or "very bad," and problems like ballot-box stuffing noted in a number of places.
These shortcomings led Anneli Jaatteenmaki, head of the monitoring delegation of the European Parliament, to issue a warning.
"The economic growth and stability are evident in your country," she said. "But sustainability of this situation can only be reinforced by greater political liberalization and democratization of the country."
On the positive side, the observers noted that the election commission overall administered the technical aspects of the electoral process "well." They said voting on election day was assessed "positively in almost 90 percent" of the polling stations visited, while "serious problems were noted in 10 percent."
Observers from the opposition complained they were intimidated and expelled from polling stations by police
and prevented from properly monitoring the vote. The same occurred to RFE/RL correspondents in several polling stations.
"Several people who are employees of the local [Automatic Telephone Station, ATS] came here to vote. They didn't have their own IDs and election invitations. They had invitations for other citizens and they voted on their behalf," Afgan Mammadov, a member of the opposition Citizen and Development Party who was part of the precinct election commission No. 15 in Baku's Yasamal constituency, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
"I tried to stop them, I even filmed them doing it to have some evidence," he continued. "Suddenly, one of the observers attacked me from behind. He beat me up and ran away into the ATS office. My suit got ripped. I lost my mobile phone and documents that were in my pocket. It was a sudden attack and I couldn't defend myself."
Correspondents from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service filmed voters being bussed from one polling station in Baku's Khazar election district, where Azerbaijan's first lady was running.
Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas, is key to Europe's hopes of reducing its energy dependence on Russia and is also a transit route for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
The country's opposition says Aliyev's regime has been cushioned against calls for democratic reform by the country's strategic importance to the West.written by Antoine Blua, with contributions from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and agency reports