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Azerbaijani Voters to Elect Third Parliament Since Independence

Sunday's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan are seen as a key test of the country's commitment to democracy. Pre-election violence between opposition supporters and police marred the campaign, and officials with two opposition parties in Azerbaijan say police have detained their campaign managers just ahead of Sunday's election.

There is little doubt among many voters that incumbent President Ilham Aliyev's ruling New Azerbaijan party will be declared the winner of Sunday's parliamentary polls. The question on the minds of many is whether the

vote will be free and fair, and if there will be a repeat of the violence seen after presidential elections in 2003.

One of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International, Azerbaijan has never held an election deemed democratic by the West.

This former teacher, who is now unemployed, says she believes Sunday's election will be no different.

The woman says it makes no difference whether she votes or not. She says the authorities will see to it, in her view, that the results are falsified, as she says they have done before.

"Whether I go to vote, or not," she says, "it makes absolutely no difference. We will vote for one," she says, "and another will be named the winner."

But another woman, who said she supports the government, believes this vote will be more democratic. She says that is because of last-minute electoral changes agreed to by President Aliyev, like requiring the use of indelible ink on voters' fingers to prevent repeat voting.

Besides, the woman adds, there are too many observers this time around for the authorities to do anything wrong.

The United States encourages all Azerbaijanis to peacefully participate in the elections, which it says are vital to Azerbaijan's future and to a strengthened U.S.-Azerbaijani relationship.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says the United States also urges full implementation of President Aliyev's October 25 election decree, including points on freedom of assembly and non-interference of local authorities in the electoral process.

Some opposition supporters worry that the West will put the desire for stability in oil-rich Azerbaijan before pressure for democracy.

Many analysts have said the key to the election's success lies in the quality of monitoring at the polls and during the vote-counting process.

Vidadi Mahmudov, secretary of Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission, agrees.

Mr. Mahmudov, one of the few non-governmental members on the commission, says international observers and organizations (NGOs) must help Azerbaijan, because, he says, they have strict control during election day and during the all-important final vote-counting process.

He says, if observers fail to apply protection mechanisms, and preserve the integrity of the vote, he fears the Central Election Commission will be reporting, what he calls, another lost chance for democracy.

In total, more than 3,000 foreign and local observers will oversee Azerbaijan's electoral process. First results are expected as early as Monday.