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Azerbaijan Prepares to Hold Critical Parliamentary Elections

Azerbaijan is preparing to hold critical parliamentary elections viewed as a key test of the oil-rich nation's stated commitment to democracy. The election campaign has been bitterly fought.

Azerbaijan's political opposition accuses incumbent President Ilham Aliyev's government of preparing to rig the poll, while the government accuses the opposition of trying to spark a political revolution.

President Aliyev's office says the country's political opposition has been accusing Azeri authorities of vote rigging for at least 12 years, but adds the opposition has failed to provide any substantive proof of the claims. The opposition says the record speaks for itself, with independent and western election monitors never once certifying an election in Azerbaijan as free and fair.

Against that backdrop, the campaign period ahead of the November 6 parliamentary elections has been fraught with tension. Over the past month, the government has used force to put down near weekly opposition protests calling for free and fair elections. Hundreds of government critics have been detained.

But government authorities are not only exerting pressure on the opposition. President Aliyev's government has also taken the unusual step of purging at least eight members of his own cabinet within weeks of the election, accusing them of working with the opposition to stage a coup.

Leading analyst Irina Kobrinskaya at the Moscow-based Institute of Europe, says the purges are more about President Aliyev's insecurities and weakness, than about any real threat to the government.

"Any dismissals of this kind before the elections means that the power wants to stabilize itself, to get rid of people who are dangerous, at least from the point of view of the president," she said.

Cabinet changes are a rarity for Azerbaijan, whose ruling structure has changed little since President Aliyev took over from his father in 2003. That was the last national vote in the country and it ended in days of protests and hundreds of arrests.

Analyst Kobrinskaya says the key thing needed now is stability. But she adds she is not optimistic, given the track record of democratic elections in Muslim countries.

"...the experience of Iraq, the experience of Uzbekistan - there were no elections, but there was this unrest in Andijan - they show that any insertion of democracy does not lead straight-forwardly to peace and democracy and welfare in the countries because they are poor and, well, the opposition there in many respects, is not democratic," she said.

All the same, Ms. Kobrinskaya says President Aliyev is under strong pressure from Europe and the United States to ensure a democratic vote.

President Aliyev says fairness is assured, given that more than 2,000 candidates have registered to compete for 125 seats in parliament and he boasts that in some districts, dozens of names are on the ballot.

Not everyone is convinced. This week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it would be "impossible" to hold a free and fair parliamentary election in Azerbaijan due to violence and intimidation of the opposition. HRW also expressed real concerns about the possibility of a violent crack-down against the opposition, if its members try to stage massive street protests after the election in the event of fraud.

The election is being watched closely in the West as Azerbaijan is a country of particular strategic significance, wedged between Russia and the Middle East, as well as one with considerable oil interests. As for investors, they'll be watching to see that the election provides a result that will ensure security in the Caspian region, not only for future investments, but for the long-anticipated opening of a multi-billion dollar U.S.-backed oil pipeline later this year.