updated 11/7/2005 8:32:52 AM ET 2005-11-07T13:32:52

An international election observer mission in Azerbaijan said Monday that the weekend’s parliamentary balloting did not meet its standards, citing irregularities in the vote count and restrictions on freedom of assembly.

The assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is likely to bolster the anger of opposition parties, who allege the vote was fraudulent and have called for a massive public protest Wednesday.

Sunday’s balloting, which came amid mounting tension between the government and opposition, was closely watched for signs of improvement on flawed past elections that sparked violence and destabilized the oil-rich, strategically located ex-Soviet republic. The West has a strong interest in stability in the Caspian Sea nation, which sits on a critical axis between Russia and Iran.

With votes from nearly 93 percent of the precincts counted, candidates from President Ilham Aliev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party were leading in 62 races, with independents — who could include ruling party loyalists — ahead in 42 races and opposition candidates in 10, according to the Central Election Commission. Most of those set to win seats were members of the current parliament.

The OSCE, Europe’s leading security body, cited some improvements over previous post-Soviet votes in Azerbaijan, but “the shortcomings that were observed, particularly during election day, have led us to conclude that the elections did not meet Azerbaijan’s international commitments on elections,” OSCE parliamentary assembly President Alcee L. Hastings said. “It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count.”

The OSCE statement said observers witnessed attempts to influence voter choices, unauthorized people directing or interfering in the voting process, and examples of ballot stuffing. It said the checking of voters’ fingers for traces of ink in order to prevent multiple voting, were not followed in 11 percent of polling stations its observers visited.

Domestic observers and members of polling station commissions were expelled from some polling stations, the OSCE said.

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