UPDATE 1-Azerbaijan election to extend rule of Aliyev party

* Opposition crying foul, monitors concerned

* West eyeing strategic interests, energy supplies

(Updates with polls open, quote)

By Lada Yevgrashina

BAKU, Nov 7 (BestGrowthStock) – The oil-producing former Soviet
republic of Azerbaijan voted in 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.

But the opposition is already crying foul.

“In this district it’s decided in advance that the ruling
candidate will win,” 58-year-old Nader Aliyev said at Baku’s
main market after voting. “We just don’t want them to forget the
ordinary people when they become deputies.

Baku was quiet on Sunday morning and there were few signs
of election fervour after a lacklustre campaign.

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.

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.

“This election will be the worst ever by Aliyev’s regime,”
opposition Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli said ahead of the
vote.

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 [ID:nLDE6A0074].

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.

Polls close at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) and official preliminary
results are expected to follow within hours.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

UPDATE 1-Azerbaijan election to extend rule of Aliyev party