Baku: The party of President Ilham Aliyev claimed victory in a Parliamentary Election in oil-producing Azerbaijan on Sunday, but opposition parties condemned the vote as rigged.
Victory will further consolidate Aliyev`s grip on the ex-Soviet republic, cushioned against calls for reform by its strategic importance to the West as an oil and gas exporter and transit route for US military operations in Afghanistan.
Official preliminary results put the ruling New Azerbaijan Party ahead in 74 out of 125 constituencies up for grabs.
Independent candidates considered loyal to the government, some publicly backed by the ruling party, were ahead in dozens of other seats.
"I am certain of our victory. We are very satisfied with our result," New Azerbaijan Party secretary Ali Akhmedov told a news conference after polls closed. "I can say that voting was free and fair."
But a Western diplomat who observed voting said: "It was an absolute sham."
He cited "egregious irregularities" including ballot stuffing and intimidation of public sector workers.
The official turnout edged just over 50 percent, after a lacklustre campaign with few public rallies that received only limited media coverage.
Aliyev has steadily firmed up his control over the mainly Muslim country of nine million people since succeeding his father, long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, in 2003.
He is an ally of the United States in a country valued for its strategic importance, bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia at the threshold of Central Asia.
Voters cast ballots under 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 a widening gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinking of democratic freedoms.