Azerbaijan voted Sunday in parliamentary elections set to cement President Ilham Aliyev's firm grip on power but condemned by the opposition as a charade whose result has been ordained in advance.
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 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 top former Soviet official.
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.
|Party workers hand out leaflets on a street in Baku.|
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 election will see more than 700 candidates vying for 125 seats in the country's 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.
At a press conference to mark the start of voting, Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov said the elections would be "a demonstration of democratic conditions, public order, civil consciousness and solidarity."
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.
The mainly Muslim country bordering Iran is considered key to Western efforts to reduce Europe's reliance on Russian oil and gas and is a transit route for US troops and supplies headed to Afghanistan.
The opposition has accused Western countries of tempering criticism of rights abuses in Azerbaijan in order to protect their strategic interests.
Polls opened at 8 am local time (0400 GMT) and were to close at 7 pm (1500 GMT). About 4.9 million people were registered to vote and the Central Election Commission is expected to begin releasing results later Sunday, after polls close.
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.