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Azerbaijan Elections Set for Wednesday - 2003-10-14

Campaigning has come to a close in Azerbaijan, where eight candidates are vying to succeed ailing president Heydar Aliyev, in elections set for Wednesday. Analysts say there is little doubt that his son will win. Their big question is whether the voting will be free and fair.

Azerbaijan has a record of widespread fraud and abuse in past elections, and international observers say that this week's election will be a critical test for democracy.

The president's son, Ilham Aliyev, who currently serves as Azerbaijan's prime minister, faces little real opposition and is widely expected to win the election.

Hundreds of international observers are in Baku to monitor the vote, including representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which called the 2000 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan a crash course in methods of manipulation.

According to Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher with another leading rights group, Human Rights Watch, this year's presidential elections are shaping up much the same. Speaking from the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, Mr. Bouckaert said officials have heavily targeted the political opposition during the election campaign.

"Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of arrests and beatings of political activists over the last few months," he said. "Many of those people were simply attending political rallies when they were beaten. The police violence in this country in the past few months has been quite extreme. And in many cases, the people who have been beaten by police were then taken to the police station, accused of attacking the police or resisting arrest, and sentenced up to 15 days in prison. And that has led to a level of intimidation in this country which certainly will prevent a free and fair vote tomorrow."

Mr. Bouckaert says Human Rights Watch also believes that the Azerbaijan government heavily intervened in the campaign process in favor of Ilham Aliyev, stacking the local and central election commissions with his supporters.

Closing out his campaign on Monday, Mr. Aliyev addressed the claims. He said Azerbaijan has instituted new election laws and procedures that, in his view, guarantee a free and fair election, with no chance of manipulation or fraud.

He also denied opposition claims that he had been given more coverage than other candidates in Azerbaijan's media, which is heavily controlled by the government.

The younger Mr. Aliyev became the expected winner of the presidential election after his father withdrew from the race just a few weeks ago, citing ongoing health problems.

The opposition says it is an illegal dynasty in the making, and is already vowing to hold protests if there is even a hint of vote fraud or manipulation.

Ilham Aliyev has warned that authorities will take, what he called, decisive steps against anyone who resorts to violence after the election.