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Western Observers Say Vote Fell Short

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Western observers said Monday that Azerbaijan's weekend parliamentary elections fell far short of international standards due to widespread irregularities in voting and vote counting.

A threat of unrest hung over the country as the opposition Azadliq coalition demanded repeat elections for 100 of the 125 seats in the parliament and vowed to hold their largest protest rally yet on Wednesday.

Preliminary official results on Monday gave President Ilham Aliyev's ruling New Azerbaijan Party the lead in 62 seats and independents -- many of whom are government loyalists -- the lead in 42, leaving the opposition with just 10.

Partial results from an exit poll for the U.S. Agency for International Development that were released Monday contradicted the official results in nine districts, putting seven Azadliq candidates ahead of pro-government candidates.

A pro-government member of the Central Elections Commission, Fuad Javadov, denied there had been widespread fraud in Sunday's elections. "The election process ran normally. There were isolated flaws, that's all," he said.

But Alcee Hastings, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission, said the vote "did not meet a number of OSCE and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections."

"It pains me to note that there were a number of significant deficiencies in the vote count by the authorities," Hastings said.

He also criticized the government for banning opposition rallies in the run-up to the elections.

Leo Platvoet, head of a Council of Europe delegation, said that 43 percent of vote counts observed by the more than 650 Western observers had been "bad or very bad." He criticized state television coverage during the campaign, saying that while equal airtime for campaign ads had been respected, the rest of state media coverage had been "overwhelmingly in favor" of the ruling party.

The United States called on the Azeri government "to take immediate investigations into these irregularities and fraud consistent with Azerbaijan's laws," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, The Associated Press reported.

Ereli also said the United States was urging that "all protests and demonstrations need to be peaceful."

Aliyev said his government would review the Western criticism and take steps to correct shortcomings. He insisted, however, that violations had occurred only in a small number of districts.

Opposition leaders estimated they had won "50 to 60" more seats than the official figures showed.

Source: The Moscow Times

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