BAKU (AFP) -Azerbaijanis have voted in parliamentary elections seen as a key test of President Ilham Aliyev”s willingness to relax his grip on power in the energy-rich and strategic ex-Soviet republic.
Some 4.66 million registered voters were choosing among 1,541 candidates competing for just 125 places in the Milli Mejlis, or national assembly, currently dominated by the pro-government Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea between Iran and Russia, has never held an election to international standards.
The opposition warns that if this poll is rigged, Aliyev”s ruling clan will face mass protests similar to last year”s "Orange Revolution" in which pro-democracy crowds helped topple Ukraine”s government.
Aliyev, who succeeded his dying, ex-KGB father Heydar Aliyev as president in controversial elections two years ago, says he will not tolerate unrest and insisted Sunday that democracy would be upheld.
"I have great faith that the election will be transparent and democratic and will reflect the will of the Azeri people," he said at the polling booth in School Number Six in the centre of the capital Baku.
About 2,000 Azeri and 1,291 foreign monitors fanned across the country, where international oil companies have invested billions of dollars, but more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and corruption is rampant.
Four hours after polls opened, national turnout had reached 18.34 percent, election officials said.
Observers reported incidents of voter lists excluding some participants, while including people no longer alive. However, it was too early to gauge the extent of violations.
At a polling station in Baku, the election commission representative told AFP that complaints were isolated, but might add up to between three and five percent of voters.
In the town of Nardaran, an opposition stronghold north of the capital, independent observer Dunya Abdullayeva told AFP the confusion was "a nightmare. Entire families are missing from the lists."
Polling booths opened at 0400 GMT and were to close at 1500 GMT, with preliminary results expected within hours.
In the run-up to election day, the government bowed to Western pressure and pushed through measures aimed at reducing fraud, including the marking of voters” fingers with indelible ink to prevent multiple casting of ballots.
However, the election campaign was marred by accusations of government intimidation and censorship. Opposition rallies were severely restricted and several were broken up in violent police actions.
After voting in a central Baku school, gym teacher Ruslam-Gusein, 59, summed up a common feeling here: "I have great hopes for democracy, but few expectations."
On the wall above him hung a picture of Heydar Aliyev, the iron ruler of Soviet and independent Azerbaijan for three decades.
Despite his death in 2003, Aliyev senior remains the centre of a personality cult in which his portrait appears on roads and buildings in every corner of the country.
President Aliyev promises democratic reforms, but has continued his father”s tradition of keeping the opposition in careful check and is warning against attempts to repeat Ukraine”s "Orange Revolution."
The authorities detained a group of visiting leaders of Ukraine”s revolution — here to monitor the poll — at Baku”s international airport late Saturday.
"There”s no mood for coloured revolutions in society," said Mazakhir Panakhov, the chairman of the Central Election Commission.
Customs officials also barred foreign television companies from bringing in their own transmission equipment, a source in a Western broadcasting company told AFP.
The rule appeared to be aimed at limiting the ability of international media to air live coverage of the kind which helped to galvanize support for protests in Ukraine in 2004.
In another sign of tension, Aliyev warned his own government against joining the opposition in an attempt to seize power.
Last month, Aliyev claimed he had crushed a coup allegedly involving an exiled opposition leader and several top officials. Two ministers were arrested.
Western governments are urging a fair vote.
On Friday, a US State Department spokesman said "the free expression of the will of the people through such elections is vital to Azerbaijan”s future and to a strengthened US-Azerbaijani relationship."
However, there are also fears in the West of how instability in Azerbaijan might affect British, US and other major oil companies exploiting the Caspian Sea fields.
Despite criticism of the Aliyev government”s human rights record, the United States sees Azerbaijan as an important energy source and partner in a deepening military relationship.