Azerbaijan election to extend rule of Aliyev party

* Opposition crying foul, monitors concerned

* West eyeing strategic interests, energy supplies

By Lada Yevgrashina

BAKU, Nov 7 (BestGrowthStock) – The oil-producing former Soviet
republic of Azerbaijan holds a parliamentary election on 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.

BAKU JET SET

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
(BP.L: ), ExxonMobil (XOM.N: ) and Chevron (CVX.N: ) 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
neighbouring 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
ceasefire ended all-out war in 1994.

Polling stations open at 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) and close at 7
p.m. (1500 GMT). Official preliminary results are expected
within hours of polls closing.
(Reporting by Lada Yevgrashina; Writing by Matt Robinson;
Editing by Peter Graff)

Azerbaijan election to extend rule of Aliyev party