Hours after polls closed in parliamentary balloting Sunday, opposition parties and authorities in this oil-rich former Soviet state headed toward a potentially violent confrontation over whether results should be thrown out on grounds of fraud.
Leaders of the three-party opposition Freedom bloc declared at an evening news conference that violations of electoral law during the day's voting were so serious that they would launch protests aimed at overturning the results, beginning with a Tuesday afternoon rally here in the capital. They pledged that demonstrations would be nonviolent and within the bounds of the constitution.
It was not clear whether the opposition would get permission to hold the rally. Police have used beatings and arrests to break up previous opposition attempts to hold unauthorized demonstrations in central Baku, and the government has said it will crush any postelection threat to public order.
Top election officials and leaders of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party generally praised the conduct of the election for a 125-seat unicameral parliament.
With votes counted from 85% of precincts, official figures showed ruling-party candidates the likely winners of 62 seats, Freedom Bloc candidates leading for five, and independents or minor party candidates favored to win the other 58. Many independents are aligned with the ruling party.
The U.S. and European countries have particular interest in the stability of Azerbaijan, which is the starting point of a nearly completed pipeline that will deliver oil from the Caspian Sea region through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea. The $3.4-billion pipeline is expected to carry 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2008 -- a significant portion of the new supplies that are due to come onto the world market in the next few years.
The U.S. government has hoped that the election could push forward democratization in an allied state that is predominantly Muslim.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is due to hold a news conference today to give its verdict on the conduct of the balloting and vote-counting.
International observers have judged previous parliamentary and presidential elections in Azerbaijan as neither free nor fair. Major efforts were made this time to deter fraud, including the marking of voters' fingers with invisible ink that can be seen under a special light, to prevent repeat voting.
In an echo of Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year, in which peaceful protests led to annulment of fraudulent balloting and finally an opposition victory, both Ali Kerimli and Isa Gambar, two leaders of the Freedom bloc, wore orange neckties as they voted Sunday. Kerimli's wife sported an orange scarf and an orange handbag.
"This is a step toward democracy from the dictatorship of the New Azerbaijan Party," Gambar, who heads the Musavat Party, said after casting his vote.
The opposition here has drawn inspiration from the string of recent pro-democracy upheavals in other former Soviet states -- Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan this year.
At their news conference, opposition leaders said that observers from the Freedom bloc had witnessed a wide range of violations including theft of ballot boxes by police, violations of rules for inking voters' fingers, and ballot box stuffing. They charged that a preliminary count from 113 of the 125 districts being contested showed 21,104 violations.
"The elections were totally falsified," said Kerimli, head of the Popular Front party and a key figure in the Freedom, or Azadlig, bloc. "Now we will start a constitutional and nonviolent struggle for cancellation of the results."
Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the New Azerbaijan Party, called the election "transparent, democratic, free and fair."
"There are no big falsifications or irregularities that can affect the results," Ahmedov said at an evening news conference. "Opposition leaders didn't even see the official results but called the election fraudulent."
President Ilham Aliyev, 44, speaking with reporters after voting Sunday morning, said that "after the elections, democratic reform will continue and Azerbaijan will develop further, ultimately evolving into a strong state."
Boosted by oil revenue, Azerbaijan's economy is booming, growing at a 20% rate this year. Top figures in the ruling elite have become fabulously rich, but most people have benefited little from oil wealth. Official statistics show 40% of the population below the poverty line.
The opposition's core message is that it will fight government corruption and use oil revenue to raise living standards.
Zaira Huseynova, 40, a cosmetics shop clerk who lives in the district where Gambar is running, said she voted for him because "he is close to the people." She said she believed "the rules of the game were not fair," a reference to accusations that the government harassed the opposition and dominated television coverage of the campaign.
Businessman Shuru Humbetov, 44, said he supported Aliyev and the ruling party because "every year you can see the development, and I feel in the future there will also be development year by year." The president "is young and intellectual," he added. "I don't think there's any person better than him in the country."
Some critics of U.S. policy say the Bush administration has soft-pedaled its criticism of Azerbaijan's government on the issue of democracy to protect economic and security ties. But in a preelection interview, U.S. Ambassador Reno Harnish denied that charge.
"We have significant security interests here. We have significant energy and economic interests here. We also have significant reform interests here, both democratic and market," he said. "We believe that these three things -- security, energy and democracy -- are indivisible."
Both Azerbaijan's government and the opposition are basically secular and pro-Western.