Azeri opposition calls for street protests against 'rigged' election

President Ilham Aliyev looked set for victory last night, with an exit poll projecting Yeni Azerbaijan with 56 seats, down from 75. The exit poll also showed the main Azadliq (Freedom) coalition of opposition parties receiving 12 seats. Independents and minor parties, most of them government allies, won the rest.

But the opposition dismissed claims by President Aliyev that yesterday's vote had gone smoothly and said it had evidence of 21,104 voting irregularities in 113 of the country's 125 constituencies.

Ali Kerimli, the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, said: " This election did not reflect the will of the Azeri people. It was totally falsified. Now we will start the constitutional non-violent struggle for the invalidation of these elections."

The opposition promised to organise large public rallies in Baku, the capital, tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday. However it has yet to receive official permission for such demonstrations and in the past the government has dispersed any unsanctioned rallies with brutal force.

The Interior Minister, Ramil Usubov, said police would intervene if the opposition tried to hold protests without getting official approval ­ which is often withheld. "We have information that the opposition ... is preparing provocation," said Mr Usubov. "We will intervene decisively to stop all attempts to disrupt public order."

Azadliq insisted it had a strong case for demonstrations. It said a 21,000-strong army of observers had witnessed more than 1,500 instances of local authorities instructing voters to support pro-government candidates and almost 1,300 examples of ballot stuffing and claimed that a new anti-fraud system to ink voters' thumbs with ultra-violet markings had been abused on more than 1,700 occasions. "These were the most falsified elections in Azeri history," claimed Panakh Guseinov, Azadliq's campaign manager.

Ballot boxes had been moved from place to place or stolen, Azadliq said, and there were almost 300 cases where policemen had intervened to obstruct the electoral process. At least one opposition candidate was reportedly arrested along with several activists.

Mr Aliyev insisted the polls were free and fair. "The campaign was successful. Equal conditions were created for all candidates and that gives me hope," he said as he cast his own vote in a Baku school.

In a sign that he concedes democracy in his country of eight million Muslims still has some way to go, he expressed hope that the elections would allow Azerbaijan to make more democratic reforms.

The executive secretary of the ruling party, Ali Akhmadov, echoed Mr Aliyev's words and predicted an overwhelming government victory.

He pronounced the elections "transparent, just and democratic" and said that violations were minor and not enough to affect the results.

The opposition's allegations of fraud meant, he said, "that they acknowledge their own defeat and are now trying to blacken the election" .

At school number 47 in a northern suburb of Baku, where one of the opposition's three main leaders was standing, voters filed past an enormous portrait of Mr Aliyev and his late father, Heydar, providing them with a powerful reminder of the father and son dynasty that has held power here for most of the past three decades.

Rafiq Allakhverdiev, 23, who works in a local entertainment complex, said that he voted for Isa Gambar, the opposition leader in question, but said he was sceptical that his vote really counted. "I don't believe the opposition will be allowed to win. We can only hope for support from foreign countries. Our own people are too afraid."

Like many people who said they had voted for the opposition, he admitted he would be unwilling to take part in street protests because he feared police violence.

Salehov Missaleh, 23, who is unemployed, and also voted for Mr Gambar, expressed similar sentiments.

"The authorities have been in power for many years but we haven't seen any changes. We are four brothers in my family and we are all unemployed." More than 40 per cent of the Azeri population lives below the poverty line.

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