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Opposition, monitors boycott Azerbaijan election

President Ilham Aliyev's ruling party is widely expected to win Sunday's vote in the authoritarian ex-Soviet state. International monitors say the election is unlikely to be free and fair.

Azeri voters headed to the polls on Sunday to vote for representatives for the country's 125-seat parliament, which is almost certainly set to re-elect the country's ruling party.

Mainstream opposition parties, including Musavat and the Popular Front, are boycotting the poll, blaming unfair election campaign rules. International rights groups have denounced the vote as an "imitation election," and many analysts say the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

President Ilham Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party, which currently has 75 seats in the single-chamber parliament, has been given free television air time in the lead up to the poll. But opposition groups were forced to pay commercial rates, which they say made it unaffordable to reach a wide audience.

"The pre-election period was marred by massive violations. That's why we decided not to participate," Musavat Party leader, Arif Gajily, told Reuters.

Over the past two years, Aliyev's government has cracked down heavily on opposition and human rights groups, which many activists say has silenced dissent and curbed freedoms.

Human Rights Watch says that 35 journalists and rights and political activists had been jailed last year on trumped up charges and that "the crackdown continued at a dizzying pace."

Most oppressive?

Europe's largest election monitoring group has refused to oversea the elections in the oil-rich ex-Soviet state, blaming interference by Azeri authorities.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says the government tried to restrict the number of observers, leaving it with too few people to monitor the poll effectively.

"I urge Azerbaijan's leaders to engage with their citizens and with the international community in an open and honest dialogue aimed at bringing human rights and rule of law back to the country," the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's democracy and human rights chairperson, Isabel Santos, said earlier this week.

Other monitoring organizations are attending.

Azerbaijan is a mainly Muslim country of about 9 million people between Iran, Russia and Turkey. The government denies human rights abuses and insists the election will be fully democratic.

Aliyev secured a third consecutive term in flawed presidential polls in 2013, extending his family's decades-long grip on power

Some foreign journalists, including reporters from Reuters, were not issued with accreditation to cover Sunday's election.

Polls close at 7pm local time (1500 UTC) and official preliminary results are expected to follow within hours.

mm/ng (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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