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Azerbaijan Elections Seen as Test-Case for Democracy

Azerbaijan is holding its third parliamentary elections since independence. Europe and the United States are challenging Azeri authorities to ensure the elections are free and fair, following allegations of irregularities in previous polls.

One unemployed former factory worker says he is sick and tired of everything, especially elections. "Maybe I will vote," the man said, while standing near a central Baku polling station. But most likely not, he adds, saying that he doubts anything will change.

The man says, years ago, he voted for the late Heydar Aliyev, the former strongman, who remains popular among many in Azerbaijan, but not among all. "I thought he would do something," the man said. "So, I voted for him, and I have become unemployed as a result."

Amira, who cast a ballot in downtown Baku, was not much more optimistic about the process.

She told VOA she would like to believe that recent electoral changes agreed to by President Ilham Aliyev, the late Heydar Aliyev's son, who was elected on his father's death in 2003, would ensure a free and fair vote. But she says she just is not certain.

Amira says she hopes new people will come to power who will set about changing what she calls, Soviet-style governing processes and procedures that she says tarnish people's votes.

Casting his ballot, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev sought to allay concerns about the democratic credibility of the elections, both in Azerbaijan and abroad.

Mr. Aliyev, whose (Yeni) New Azerbaijan party controls the current majority in parliament, said he was satisfied the elections were being carried out, quote, "normally" and would reflect the will of the Azeri people.

In comments broadcast on Azeri television, President Aliyev says he is confident that, after the elections, Azerbaijan will continue its economic development and deepen democratic reforms.

By early evening, central election commission officials reported a brisk turn-out, with voters choosing from among 1,500 candidates for 125 seats in parliament. No major violations were immediately reported, but many independent observers express concern about the possibility for trouble after the polls close. In the run-up to the vote, opposition parties complained of harassment, saying their campaign managers were arrested in the final days of the campaign.

Analysts believe the viability of the election hinges upon the quality of monitoring during voting hours, as well as during the all-important vote count overnight.

First results could come as soon as Monday. But attention is also expected to be heavily focused Monday on the election assessment to be given by independent western observers.

Azerbaijan's political opposition has warned that, if the integrity of the poll is not protected, it will stage peaceful protests like those seen recently in Georgia and Ukraine. President Aliyev, whose police and security forces have already used force against opposition protesters, has said mass unrest will not be tolerated.