Int'l monitors: Uneven field in Azeri vote

** ALTERNATIVE CROP **  Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev casts his vote in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010. Voters go to the poll  to elect the 125 members of Azerbaijan's parliament.  (AP Photo/Vugar Amrullayev)
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** ALTERNATIVE CROP ** Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev casts his vote in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010. Voters go to the poll to elect the 125 members of Azerbaijan's parliament.

International vote monitors say there was an uneven playing field in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections.

With more than 90 percent of the vote counted, the ruling party looks set to win Sunday's vote, marking an expected victory for President Ilham Aliyev.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe declared Monday that despite the vote being well organized technically, voters were denied all the necessary information on candidates to make an informed choice.

Opponents say they were denied a fair shot in the vote and deem it illegitimate.

Aliyev has ruled since 2003 and looks set to continue indefinitely after a referendum he pushed through in 2008 abolished presidential terms.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Azerbaijan's ruling party looks set to win parliamentary elections in the energy-rich nation, its top election official indicated Monday, a result that would maintain President Ilham Aliyev's firm hold over the country.

With more than 90 percent of votes preliminarily counted, Sunday's vote in this former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea appears to have given an expected victory to Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003.

The country's Central Elections Commission head, Mazahir Panahov, said in a televised news conference early Monday that about 70 seats in the 125-seat legislature went to representatives of Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan party.

Opponents of Aliyev have already cried foul, saying they were denied a fair shot in the vote. Aliyev is often criticized by rights groups for heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition groups.

The opposition bloc Musavat had been expected to compete, but its leader Isa Qambar told The Associated Press that none of its candidates had won seats.

Musavat and other opposition parties complained Sunday that their observers were blocked from some polling stations and also reported cases of multiple voting.

"We demand the results be annulled and new elections be conducted on the basis of a revised election legislation," Qambar said. He called the vote "illegitimate, undemocratic, untransparent, and not free."

Qambar had earlier said the group's chances were high, but that the results would depend on the will of the presidential administration rather than popular opinion.

Just over 50 percent of the 4.95 million eligible voters took part in Sunday's election.

Qambar earlier said the opposition would consider calling a protest rally for Tuesday, but few expect a repeat of the mass protests that followed the last parliamentary elections five years ago and what appeared to be widespread fraud.

Recent opposition rallies have drawn only a few dozen activists, and the election campaign was far quieter than those of past years.

This has been attributed in part to rising living standards in Azerbaijan, a major exporter of oil and gas, and to political apathy.

Azerbaijan's oil fields and its location straddling a corridor for westward oil and gas exports from Central Asia — bypassing its neighbors Russia and Iran — have made it a focus in the struggle between Moscow and the West for regional influence.

Aliyev, 48, took over in 2003 from his father, the late Geidar Aliyev, who had led Azerbaijan first as Communist Party boss during Soviet times and then as president from 1993 to 2003.

After winning re-election in 2008 amid opposition allegations of vote rigging, Aliyev pushed through a constitutional referendum to scrap presidential term limits, allowing him to rule indefinitely.