11/05/2005, 00.00
AZERBAIJAN
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Azerbaijan vote set to be democracy test

An election campaign marred by several human rights abuses closed yesterday. The international community, especially neighbouring Asian states, is paying close attention: the oil-rich country enjoys an important strategic position from a geopolitical perspective.

Baku (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Tomorrow Azerbaijan goes the polls to renew its parliament, under pressure from the international community and human rights organizations to ensure a democratic and correct popular consultation.  The country's democracy and 125 National Assembly (Milli Meclis) seats are up for grabs. But more is at stake. Azerbaijan, with its eight million residents, bordering Russia and Iran, is a crucially important state from a geopolitical viewpoint, apart from being a veritable natural oil reserve. These factors serve to draw the attention of the United States, China and Russia, all contending for this area of influence.

Candidates number 1,598: around half are contesting as "independent' and the others are spread over 48 parties. However, competition appears to be narrowed down between the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (Yap) of the president Ilham Aliyev and the Azadliq block, an alliance of three major opposition parties: the reformists of the Popular Front, the Democratic Party and the Musavat. The 

YAP garnered 10 out of 125 seats in the 2000 election which, according to unanimous expert opinion, were riddled with systematic gerrymandering.

During the election campaign, observers lamented repeated violations of freedom of broadcasting with beatings, threats and arrests of opposition activists, refusal to grant authorization to hold manifestations in Baku and police charges against unauthorized marches. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said public television dedicated around 97% of its electoral coverage time to the majority party in government and to the president, which also enjoy the favour of the press. Holly Carter, director of the Europe and central Asia division of the monitoring organization Human Rights Watch, said: "The government does not want free and fair elections". Yesterday, the last day of the election campaign, only the party in government was allowed to hold a public manifestation, while the Azadliq block was refused permission.

Rasul Quliyev, opposition leader in exile since 1996 and parliament candidate, sought to return: on 17 October, finding out that he would be greeted at the airport by military men waiting to arrest him as soon as he returned, he retreated. Government ministers have been arrested (including the former Health Minister Ali Insanov, considered the fourth richest man in the country), as well as public officials and businessmen accused of plotting to pull off a coup d'etat together with Quliyev.

OSCE observers will monitor regularity of the polls; they have already managed to secure some changes to the electoral law, like the introduction of indelible ink to mark the fingers of those who have already voted.

The party in government is tipped to win, but surprises are not excluded. Discontent among the people is high: according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), half the population lives in poverty, corruption is widespread and the problem of more than 500,000 refugees who escaped from Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved. However President Aliyev is very popular and many say he can count on the "power" of oil. The state has set up an oleoduct from Baku to Tbilisi and the Turkish port of Ceyhan, which will start operating within the year. Thanks to the oil, public revenue is set to shoot up by 128% between 2006 and 2009.

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