The main foreign group monitoring the weekend's parliamentary elections said Monday that the voting failed to meet democratic standards, a finding that could bolster Azerbaijan's trounced opposition as it tries to organize mass demonstrations to upend the results.
"The election day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and tabulation," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), who headed the parliamentary assembly monitors of the 55-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count."
That assessment presents the Bush administration with the delicate task of balancing its commitment to spreading democracy with its strategic interests in this oil-rich country, which borders Iran and Russia and has sent a contingent of troops to Iraq. President Bush has said the quality of Azerbaijan's relations with the United States depend on the nature of the electoral process. President Ilham Aliyev, who had committed himself to honest balloting, failed to follow through on his promise, according to the monitors.
State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Monday that there were "major irregularities and fraud that are of serious concern. We will urge the government of Azerbaijan to take immediate investigations into these irregularities and fraud consistent with Azerbaijan's laws, institutions and election legislation. We will also make the point that all protests and demonstrations need to be peaceful, legal. All parties should refrain from violence."
The OSCE reiterated previous complaints about the conduct of the campaign, including the breakup of opposition rallies by baton-wielding police officers. It also highlighted such irregularities as ballot-stuffing on election day. The Council of Europe, a 46-country group based in Strasbourg, France, and the parliamentary assembly of the NATO alliance voiced similar concerns.
The opposition said it rejected the results and would hold a major rally in Baku, the capital, on Wednesday.
Aliyev said on state television that "the opinion of the OSCE and other international organizations will be taken into account, their comments will be studied and serious measures will be taken." But he said that any violations were minimal, confined to seven or eight districts, and that in general "the results don't awaken any doubts."
The OSCE's findings were "harsher than I expected," Elin Suleymanov, a presidential adviser, said after the group held a news conference. "We never claimed the process would be ideal."
The OSCE's emphasis on late-night problems with the counting of the votes dovetailed with the key allegation of the leading opposition coalition, whose three leaders were all defeated in the districts where they ran.
Leo Platvoet, head of the Dutch delegation to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, said 43 percent of all reports received from observers said the counting was either "bad or very bad." Election observers said the final result sheets were tampered with.
"The real violations of the law started after 7 p.m.," said Isa Gambar, a defeated opposition leader with the Freedom bloc. The group "does not recognize the results," he said. "We have every right to demand the abolition of the election results."
The Azerbaijan Central Election Commission said preliminary results showed that Aliyev's ruling party, the New Azerbaijan Party, won 63 seats in the 125-seat parliament. Independents, many of whom have been loyal to the president, were leading in 42 districts. The Freedom bloc, which brings together three parties and ran candidates in all 125 districts, was ahead in five districts.
An exit poll that was sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and surveyed voters in 65 electoral districts, found sometimes large disparities between its results and the official count.
In one district, the exit poll had Hacimurad Sadeddinov, a human rights activist, winning with 33.6 percent against 17.2 percent for the government's candidate, Asim Mollazade. Official results gave Sadeddinov 25.09 percent, while Mollazade was shown winning with 33.57 percent.
Within the constraints of the diplomatic language it employs, the OSCE was direct and harsh while noting some efforts at a fair vote. It said the elections "did not meet a number of OSCE and Council of Europe standards and commitments for democratic standards."
In an interview with American journalists after the OSCE news conference, Hastings noted that the Bush administration had hoped for an election process it could at least praise as a step forward. "We have strategic interests in this location, and it is critical that we can continue dialogue so that those strategic interests are best served," Hastings said.