Thousands protest in Azerbaijan


BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Thousands rallied in Azerbaijan's capital yesterday to demand the government's resignation because of abuses in last weekend's parliamentary election. But both sides showed signs of compromise, with the rally ending peacefully and officials taking steps to address problems with the vote counting.

Under the glare of hundreds of helmeted riot police, about 20,000 protesters, many waving orange flags as a symbol of peaceful revolt, gathered in Victory Square for a three-hour rally permitted by the government.

Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliev, who has been embarrassed by stinging foreign criticism of the conduct of Sunday's balloting for the nation's 125-seat unicameral parliament, fired two regional governors yesterday for tampering with the vote count.

The Central Election Commission, which annulled the results in two election districts Tuesday, canceled the results of a third yesterday.

The U.S. government, which wishes to see stability and democracy in this oil-rich former Soviet state, has put diplomatic pressure on both sides to refrain from violence and has urged Azerbaijan's authorities to rectify falsified results. The opposition has pinned its hopes on a combination of street action, court battles and international pressure.

Preliminary results released Monday showed the ruling New Azerbaijan Party winning 63 seats, the Freedom bloc getting six and other opposition parties set to win four. Independents and minor-party candidates, many of them aligned with the ruling party, were expected to take almost all of the remaining 52 seats. Although the election commission's subsequent actions appeared likely to deny the ruling party an outright majority, independents will probably still give Aliev a pliable parliament.

The Freedom bloc claims that had the vote count been accurate, the ruling party and its allies could have been denied control of parliament.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Monday that its observers had judged the vote-counting process as "bad" or "very bad" in 43 percent of the polling places observed. It also said that during the campaign there had been severe bias in state-run or pro-government news media in favor of ruling party candidates.

At yesterday's rally, the focus was on government corruption and the alleged election fraud. But anger went beyond those issues.

"The struggle is not just about free elections," said Panah Huseyn, head of the Freedom bloc's election headquarters. "They attack our souls, our brains. The result of the election is that the Azeri people are damned. They are saying, `You are nothing! We are selecting the members of parliament that we want.'"

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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