Observers call Azerbaijan vote unfair, opposition plans challenge

Reuters

* Monitors cite ballot-stuffing, flawed counting

* Re-elected president Aliyev thanks Azeris for support

* Opposition says it will take results to court

* U.S. says vote "fell short of international standards"

By Lada Evgrashina and Margarita Antidze

BAKU, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Opponents of Azerbaijan's PresidentIlham Aliyev said on Thursday they would go to court tochallenge his election to a third term, rejecting the result ofa vote that international monitors said was seriously flawed.

Aliyev, who succeeded his father a decade ago as leader ofthe oil-producing former Soviet republic, won a third five-yearterm with nearly 85 percent of the vote in Wednesday's election.

Standing before a national flag on state television, he thanked Azeris for their support and said he would ensuresecurity in the South Caucasus, where tensions still simmer withneighbouring Armenia over a disputed territory.

Opposition candidate Jamal Hasanly said he aimed tochallenge the official result in the Constitutional Court,alleging violations including ballot stuffing and multiplevoting. "This election was neither free or fair," he said.

Aliyev, 51, has overseen an economic boom that has raisedliving standards in the Caspian Sea nation, which pumps oil andgas to Europe, bypassing Russia. He has allowed Washington touse it as a transit point for sending troops to Afghanistan.

But he has faced criticism at home and abroad over histreatment of opponents. Media are tightly controlled, protestsquashed, and one rights group said a pre-election crackdown haddoubled the number of political prisoners.

International monitors from the Organisation for Securityand Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was marred by a"restrictive media environment" and allegations of intimidationof candidates and voters.

"The limitations placed on the fundamental freedoms ofassembly, association, and expression, the lack of a levelplaying field, the allegations of intimidation, all came in thelead up to an election day that our observers found to beseriously flawed," OSCE official Tana de Zulueta said.

Monitors reported clear indications of ballot-stuffing at 37 polling stations, and said the counting was assessednegatively at an unprecedented 58 per cent of stations observed.

An OSCE news conference degenerated into chaos asjournalists from pro-government media drowned out the observersand shouted "The OSCE is biased."

The U.S. State Department said Washington agreed with theOSCE that the election "fell short of international standards".In a statement, it urged the Azeri government to respect freedomof peaceful assembly, association and speech and to preventviolence in the post-electoral period.

RICH-POOR DIVIDE

Hasanly, 61, a former lawmaker who has united Azerbaijan'sfractured opposition for the first time in a presidentialelection, told journalists: "When (officials) announce the finalofficial results of the election and declare Ilham Aliyev as thepresident, we will address the Constitutional Court with ademand to cancel the election results."

A gaping divide between the rich and poor and allegations ofcorruption, which Azeris say pervades many aspects of life, hasled to an increase in unrest, and the opposition plans a rallyon Saturday.

But few expect sustained protests over a vote whose resultsmany saw as a foregone conclusion because of Aliyev's tight gripover the South Caucasus nation of 9 million.

Aliyev said he has reduced poverty drastically. But with anaverage monthly salary of 500 manats ($600), few Azeris canafford the designer boutiques and five-star hotels that dot thecapital Baku, on the shore of the Caspian.

Rights groups say Azerbaijan's strategic location betweenRussia and Iran, its oil reserves, Europe-bound energy pipelines and support role for U.S. operations in Afghanistanhave cushioned it from Western criticism.

Aliyev has dismissed accusations of human rights abuses andsays Azeris enjoy full democratic freedoms. He won thepresidency in 2003 and 2008 in votes that internationalobservers said fell short of democratic standards.

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