BAKU The party of President Ilham Aliyev claimed victory in a parliamentary election in oil-producing Azerbaijan on Sunday, but opposition parties condemned the vote as rigged.
Victory will further consolidate Aliyev's grip on the ex-Soviet republic, cushioned against calls for reform by its strategic importance to the West as an oil and gas exporter and transit route for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Official preliminary results put the ruling New Azerbaijan Party ahead in 74 out of 125 constituencies up for grabs.
Independent candidates considered loyal to the government, some publicly backed by the ruling party, were ahead in dozens of other seats.
"I am certain of our victory. We are very satisfied with our result," New Azerbaijan Party secretary Ali Akhmedov told a news conference after polls closed. "I can say that voting was free and fair."
But a Western diplomat who observed voting told Reuters: "It was an absolute sham."
He cited "egregious irregularities" including ballot stuffing and intimidation of public sector workers.
The official turnout edged just over 50 percent, after a lacklustre campaign with few public rallies that received only limited media coverage.
Aliyev has steadily firmed up his control over the mainly Muslim country of 9 million people since succeeding his father, long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, in 2003.
He is an ally of the United States in a country valued for its strategic importance, bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia at the threshold of Central Asia.
Voters cast ballots under portraits and busts of Heydar, the focus of a personality cult in the seven years since his death.
Ilham Aliyev's rule has coincided with an oil-fueled economic boom, spawning rapid construction in the capital Baku and the emergence of an opulent jet set. Critics say the Baku facelift masks a widening gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinking of democratic freedoms.
UNRESOLVED KARABAKH CONFLICT
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will issue their assessment on Monday. Prior to the vote, they expressed concern over reports of intimidation and the disqualification of candidates.
The opposition has frequently accused the West of muting its criticism for fear of losing out to Russia in the battle for Azerbaijan's oil and gas in the Caspian Sea, key to Europe's hopes of reducing its energy dependence on Moscow.
"It's unlikely my vote will make any difference," said 41-year-old Vladislav Semenov. "The same people with a thirst for profit will end up in parliament, far removed from the ordinary people."
Opposition Musavat party leader Isa Gambar said the vote "resembled the elections of the late Soviet period." Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli decried "mass falsification."
President Aliyev did not speak to media when he voted shortly after polls opened to the national anthem.
Western diplomats are unnerved by a 90-percent increase in military spending ordered by Aliyev for 2011. Azerbaijan has been locked for two decades in a conflict with neighboring Armenia over the rebel region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ethnic Armenians in the mountain enclave broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed. The past two years have seen the worst skirmishes on the frontline since a ceasefire ended all-out war in 1994.
Speaking at the burial on Sunday of two Azeri soldiers repatriated from Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev repeated a threat to take the region back by force.
"The army of Azerbaijan waits for the order of the commander-in-chief and is ready to fulfill it," he said. "No one wants war, but we do not want to conduct negotiations for the sake of negotiations."
(Additional reporting by Lada Yevgrashina in Baku and Matt Robinson and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Kevin Liffey)