UPDATE 3-Monitors fault Azeri vote won by Aliyev loyalists

* Main opposition bloc left without a seat

* President Aliyev consolidating power

* West eyes strategic interests and energy supplies

(Adds quotes, background, edits throughout)

By Lada Yevgrashina

BAKU, Nov 8 (BestGrowthStock) – Monitors rebuked oil-producing
Azerbaijan on Monday for holding a flawed parliamentary election
that tightened President Ilham Aliyev’s hold over the former
Soviet republic, a strategic partner of the West.

Aliyev loyalists swept the board in Sunday’s election,
described by one Western diplomat who observed voting as an
“absolute sham”.

The opposition said the election marked a challenge to
Western democracies.

But the United States and European Union will tread
carefully because Azerbaijan, an oil and gas exporter, is key to
Europe’s hopes of reducing its energy dependence on Russia and
is a transit route for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

The mainly Muslim country of 9 million people is located at
a strategic crossroads, bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia at the
threshold of Central Asia. It hosts oil majors including BP
(BP.L: ), ExxonMobil (XOM.N: ) and Chevron (CVX.N: ).

Monitors cited an “uneven playing field” for candidates,
limitations on media freedom and freedom of assembly, instances
of ballot stuffing and vote count irregularities.

The conduct of the elections “was not sufficient to
constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of
the country,” monitors from the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and European
Parliament said in a statement.

The head of the OSCE observation mission, Ambassador Audrey
Glover, criticised “restrictions of fundamental freedoms, media
bias, the dominance of public life by one party, and serious
violations on election day.”

KARABAKH CONFLICT

With almost all votes counted, Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party
had increased its share in the 125-seat parliament to at least
71 seats from 64 previously, and a host of small parties and
“independents” loyal to the government took almost all the rest.

The leading opposition party, Musavat, failed to win a
single seat and criticised the vote as “illegitimate”.

Opposition Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli told reporters:
“It’s a challenge to the democratic Western community.”

The ruling party said the vote was “free and fair” and the
Central Election Commission said: “No serious violations were
registered that could affect the result.”

Aliyev has steadily consolidated control since succeeding
his father, long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. Votes
were cast on Sunday beneath portraits and busts of Heydar, the
focus of a personality cult in the seven years since his death.

Ilham Aliyev’s rule has coincided with an oil-fuelled
economic boom, spawning rapid construction in the capital Baku
and the emergence of an opulent jet set. Critics say the Baku
facelift masks rampant corruption, a widening gap between rich
and poor, and a steady shrinking of democratic freedoms.

Besides economic growth, the government argues it has also
brought long-term stability to the country in a volatile
neighbourhood. But Western diplomats are unnerved by a 90
percent hike in military spending ordered by Aliyev for 2011.

The country remains locked with neighbouring Armenia in an
unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic
Armenians broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union
collapsed two decades ago. The past two years have seen the
worst skirmishes since a ceasefire was declared in 1994.

Aliyev did not speak to media when he voted on Sunday,
addressing instead the burial of two Azeri soldiers repatriated
from Nagorno-Karabakh. He repeated a threat to take the mountain
enclave back by force, saying “we do not want to conduct
negotiations for the sake of negotiations.”
(Additional reporting by Afet Mehtiyeva in Baku, Matt Robinson
and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi. Writing by Matt Robinson;
editing by Mark Trevelyan)

UPDATE 3-Monitors fault Azeri vote won by Aliyev loyalists