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International Observers Say Azerbaijan Elections Undemocratic

International observers say Sunday's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan failed to meet international standards for democracy. The Central Election Commission says the vote count, so far, shows the ruling party of President Ilham Aliyev winning a clear majority. The opposition claims the vote was fraudulent and plans a protest Wednesday.

Azerbaijan has never held an election deemed valid by the West, and Sunday's vote, despite last-minute electoral reforms ordered by the government, also drew criticism from international observers.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent more than 650 observers from 42 countries, who visited more than half of all polling stations. Members of the local media erupted in applause, as the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Alsee Hastings, announced the observers' findings.

"Yesterday's elections did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections ...," he said. "While there were improvements in some respects, during the pre-election period, such as an improved registration of candidates, uncertainty was evident with regard to key aspects of the process, such as voter registration."

Mr. Hastings says, while voting was generally calm, the election-day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and tabulation. "Significant deficiencies" in the count were the words Mr. Hastings used to describe the observers' assessment.

He said Azerbaijan's ruling authority did not live up to its promise to the people to ensure a free and fair vote.

"Despite the expressed political will by state authorities to improve the overall election process, in particular, through the two presidential decrees, implementation only partially achieved the stated objectives," he said.

Noted shortcomings of the elections, as reported by Western observers, include interference of local authorities, disproportionate use of force to halt rallies, arbitrary detentions, unbalanced composition of election commissions and the failure of those commissions to effectively address issues of dispute.

The observers also assessed the ballot-counting process as "bad", or "very bad", in 43 percent of counts observed.

The international observers said improvements were seen in allocation of free airtime for candidates on state-funded media, and the inking of voters' fingers after they cast their ballots to prevent people from voting more than once. The government was also commended for allowing more opposition political rallies than seen in the past.

The observers urged the Azeri government to allow the political opposition to protest the results, which according to the Central Election Commission give the ruling New Azerbaijan Party of President Aliyev an outright majority in parliament.

The opposition says the result is rigged, and is calling for the entire vote to be annulled. The observers diplomatically side-stepped that issue when asked directly whether they thought the election should be canceled. They replied that is an issue for the ruling authorities and the Azeri people.

But CIS observers, from former Soviet States, came to a different conclusion. They said that separate violations during voting were not of such massive character as to influence the overall outcome.