Baku: Azerbaijan voted Sunday in parliamentary elections set to cement President Ilham Aliyev`s grip on power but condemned by the opposition as a charade whose results have already been decided.
Polls closed at 7:00 pm local time (1500 GMT) after 11 hours of voting and the Central Election Commission was due to start releasing results later Sunday. Voter turnout by early evening was 44.8 percent, the CEC said.
The opposition has urged the West not to ignore democratic violations in the energy-rich former Soviet state, which has been courted since the collapse of the Soviet Union by foreign governments as a key source of oil and gas.
The mainly Muslim country bordering Iran is also a transit route for US troops and supplies headed to Afghanistan.
The ruling Yeni (New) Azerbaijan party insists the election will be fair and credits Aliyev with steering the country to healthy economic growth since taking over in 2003 from his late father Heydar, a former top Soviet official.
"The election is being held normally and transparently. All candidates have equal opportunities," Yeni Azerbaijan deputy executive secretary Mubariz Gurbanly told AFP.
Critics, however, have accused authorities of preparing to falsify the vote by rejecting the registration of dozens of the main opposition bloc`s candidates, using state influence on the media to limit debate and refusing to grant permission for opposition meetings.
Opposition leader Ali Karimli said after voting that it was already clear that violations were taking place, saying "each undemocratic election is a blow to Azerbaijan’s international image."
"In some districts multiple voting has been taking place," said Karimli, the head of the Azerbaijani Popular Front party which along with the Musavat party is running as the main opposition bloc.
The election will see about 700 candidates vying for 125 seats in the country`s unicameral parliament, the Milli Mejlis.
Parliament is currently dominated by Yeni Azerbaijan, which holds 64 seats against only a handful for the opposition, following elections in 2005 that the opposition denounced as fraudulent.
Analysts have predicted the ruling party will easily secure enough votes to maintain its dominance of parliament.
Aliyev was overwhelmingly re-elected president in 2008 and last year Azerbaijan voted to scrap a two-term limit on the presidency, a move critics said was aimed at extending his hold on power.
In a brief statement, the presidential administration said only that Aliyev had voted along with his wife Mehriban.
Voting for the first time, 18-year-old student Gyunai Bairamova said she had supported Yeni Azerbaijan because it was the only party capable of making a difference.
"I voted for the ruling party candidate because I believe they are the only ones who can work for us," she said after casting her vote at a polling station in the capital Baku.
Shamil Gasymov, a 41-year-old engineer, said he had voted for the opposition because he believed the ruling party cared little for the problems of ordinary Azerbaijanis.
"The only ones in parliament who are raising people`s problems are the opposition. The other deputies only care about protecting or praising the authorities. They have forgotten about the people," he said.
The opposition has accused Western countries of tempering criticism of rights abuses in Azerbaijan in order to protect their strategic interests.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has sent about 300 observers to monitor the vote and is to release a statement on the conduct of the election Monday.
About 4.9 million people were registered to vote, the CEC said.