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Azerbaijan's Local Elections Viewed As Flawed

Azerbaijan's local elections - the first in the nation's history - have been overshadowed by widespread accusations of malpractice and police brutality.
By Kamal Ali

Azerbaijan finally called its local council elections on December 12 after the Council of Europe demanded the vote as a precondition of Azerbaijan's membership bid. The elections opened up 21,000 municipal council seats across the country, with the final results will be announced over the coming week.

But both opposition parties and international experts have meanwhile expressed serious doubts over the conduct of the elections.

Observers from the American Institute of Peace and Democracy, who included Ivlian Khaindrava, chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, claimed that some polling stations drew less than 11 per cent of the local electorate and questioned official claims that the turnout had topped 80 per cent at others.

Alleged violations reported by the delegation included the case of one voter detained with 13 stamped ballot papers.

Council of Europe observers made an official statement, listing a catalogue of alleged malpractice "which could prejudice the electoral process".

These included attempts to interfere with the work of the electoral committee; a discrepancy between the number of voters' signatures in the general nomination list and the total number of papers drawn from the ballot boxes; reports of voters submitting more than one paper and incidents of names being added to the ballot papers during election day.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders from major parties such as Musavat, Popular Front and National Independence are openly accusing the nation's ruling party of rigging the elections. Democratic Congress - the association of opposition parties - has already called for the results to be annulled and is currently discussing plans to create a National Opposition Movement.

In a further development, representatives of the local media have claimed journalists were subjected to physical and moral pressure from the police during the electoral process.

Reporters are said to have been driven away from polling stations while photographers had their cameras smashed. A correspondent from the Gunaydin newspaper claims that he was beaten up by members of the New Azerbaijan ruling party in the nation's second city, Ganja, while police officers assaulted a leading figure in the Popular Front Party.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's ruling party, headed by President Heidar Aliev, has announced that it is generally satisfied with the proceedings explaining that teething problems were inevitable in this, the nation's first flirtation with local democracy. Party chiefs went on to say that the experience would provide valuable lessons for the parliamentary elections in 2000.

Kamal Ali is a deputy editor for social issues, for the daily Zerkalo in Baku.