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Azerbaijan Presidential Elections Under Way - 2003-10-15

Polls have opened in Azerbaijan, where voters are casting ballots for a new president in an election seen by the West as a critical test for democracy. But some international rights groups and the political opposition have already expressed concern that the voting will not be free or fair.

Azerbaijan's voters are making their way to the polls to participate in what will be the country's first change in leadership since 1969. The voters are casting ballots for a new president to replace Heidar Aliyev, who withdrew from the race earlier this month due to illness, and threw his support behind his son, Ilham Aliyev.

The younger Mr. Aliyev, who currently serves as Azerbaijan's prime minister, faces seven challengers, but he is widely expected to win. Under Azerbaijan's election law, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote to win. If no candidate achieves that on Wednesday, there will be a second round of voting.

If elected, Mr. Aliyev has promised to carry on his father's policies, and even pledged to keep many of his advisors in the next government.

The opposition is urging voters to cast their ballots for change, not corruption. The opposition alleges widespread abuse and intimidation during the election campaign -- a charge also made by Human Rights Watch.

The international human rights group has said there can not be a free and fair election when opposition activists are beaten and arrested routinely. They also say the media and election officials are biased in favor of the president's son.

Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, says foreign observers need to be frank about what they have seen. "We do think it's important for the international community to speak clearly about the abuses that they have themselves witnessed," he says. "We hope that they will not water down their assessment of these elections because we know that they have witnessed the same abuses that we've been documenting and talking about."

Mr. Bouckaert also says Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about what will happen after the results are announced, especially if there is any hint of fraud. He says the opposition is already calling for large-scale protests.

Prime Minister Aliyev has threatened decisive action against anyone who resorts to violence to protest the results.