BAKU (Reuters) - The oil-producing former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan holds a parliamentary election Sunday that the opposition says is stage-managed to give victory to loyalists of President Ilham Aliyev.
Rights groups accuse the ruling party of curbing democratic freedoms while enjoying protection from Western criticism because of Baku’s strategic importance as an oil and gas exporter and transit route for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) says it sees no “worthy competitors” in the race for the 125-seat parliament.
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have expressed concern over what they describe as credible reports of intimidation and the disqualification of candidates. The opposition is already crying foul.
“This election will be the worst ever by Aliyev’s regime,” said opposition Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli. “The authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan for the last 17 years has led to a situation where radical changes are needed.”
Independent analyst Leila Aliyeva told Reuters: “There won’t be any surprises during this election. That became clear during the campaign.”
Aliyev has firmly consolidated power since succeeding his father, long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. Heydar’s portrait and words adorn schools, government buildings and polling stations across the country, in a personality cult the opposition says has made dissent dangerous.
The younger Aliyev has presided over an oil-fuelled economic boom. The capital Baku is blossoming with construction and the opulence of an emerging jet set, masking, critics say, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
The government says projects by oil majors including BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron have brought better living standards for all, but the International Monetary Fund says the oil-dependent economy should be diversified.
The authorities also argue they have also brought long-term stability to the mainly Muslim country of 9 million people, located in the volatile South Caucasus bordering Turkey, Iran and Russia, and at the threshold of Central Asia.
But Western diplomats are unnerved by a 90-percent hike in military spending ordered by Aliyev for 2011, with Azerbaijan locked for two decades in an unresolved conflict with neighboring Armenia over the rebel region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ethnic Armenians in the mountain enclave broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed, and Azerbaijan frequently threatens to take it back by force. The past two years have seen the worst skirmishes on the frontline since a cease-fire ended all-out war in 1994.
Polling stations open at 8 a.m. (4 a.m. British time) and close at 7 p.m. (3 p.m. British time). Official preliminary results are expected within hours of polls closing.
Reporting by Lada Yevgrashina; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Peter Graff