Azerbaijan's opposition wants to annul all election results

Azerbaijan's opposition tried to maintain pressure on the government Thursday after disputed parliamentary elections in the oil-rich nation, calling for the annulment of all results and for a series of protest rallies.But President Ilham Aliev's administration, which fired two governors for election interference and ordered several recounts, gave no sign that it is willing to make major concessions or even allow new opposition gatherings. A pro-government victory rally, meanwhile, attracted some 20,000 people, larger than the opposition's demonstration a day earlier.

A joint statement by leaders of the main opposition coalition Azadliq, or Freedom, and other groups said Sunday's elections in the former Soviet republic were marred by "gross violations of the law."

Official results in the polls, which were criticized by international observers for falling short of democratic standards, gave the largest number of seats to the ruling New Azerbaijan party. "The official results of these elections should be annulled and new parliamentary elections held," the opposition groups said.

The Central Election Commission on Wednesday awarded a legislative seat to an opposition leader after a recount - suggesting it could try to defuse protests by granting a few more parliamentary seats to the opposition.

Senior presidential aide Ali Hassanov told The Associated Press that authorities were examining results in 20 districts to determine whether local officials had manipulated the outcome, although he said this did not mean recounts would be held in all cases, the AP reports.

The opposition vowed Thursday to hold more rallies across the country, after Wednesday's demonstration in the capital drew about 15,000 people. Authorities have not responded to a request for permission to hold another opposition rally Saturday; police in the past have used force to break up unsanctioned rallies.

New Azerbaijan staged its own victory rally Thursday in the same square where the opposition had demonstrated. More than 20,000 gathered, holding national flags and chanting "Victory!" and "Ilham!" as fireworks exploded above.

The opposition has sought to follow the example of the massive protests that helped usher opposition leaders to power after disputed votes in the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Although there is simmering resentment over widespread corruption that has helped keep more than 40 percent of the population in poverty despite the nation's oil wealth, the opposition is not seen as having as broad support as in those countries.

Western governments, meanwhile, regard this small secular Muslim nation sandwiched between Iran and Russia as an important source of oil and are eager to see stability maintained.

Independent political analyst Rasim Musabekov said the opposition was in a much weaker position than the government, which at most would be willing to concede 10 or 12 additional seats to the opposition.

New elections "are as likely as the government agreeing to resign and handing over power to the opposition," he said.

New Azerbaijan retained a majority in the 125-seat parliament with the support of government-affiliated independent lawmakers, with the opposition receiving only a handful of seats, according to official results. A.M.

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