A candidate in this weekend's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan said Thursday she was threatened with expulsion from the ruling party if she didn't withdraw from the race, strengthening allegations that hundreds have been forced out of the campaign. Almost one-quarter of the candidates registered for this weekend's parliamentary election have dropped out, according to the Central Election Commission, and human rights groups and opposition activists allege that it's due to official pressure.
The election commission said 496 candidates had dropped out, including 180 from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, founded by late President Geidar Aliev and now led by his son, the country's current president, Ilham Aliev.
Matilda Bogner, the Baku-based representative of Human Rights Watch, said the number of withdrawals had skyrocketed over the past week. The ruling party registered 109 candidates running on its behalf, but hundreds of other members of the party joined the race on their own.
Khalilova, a stout woman with a row of gold teeth, said that the chief of her local party branch had called her in late last month and ordered her to withdraw. When she refused, she said, "He said, 'You'll be excluded from the party."
Meanwhile, the main opposition alliance Azadliq, or Freedom, held its last pre-election rally Thursday as dusk settled over the industrial city of Sumgait, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the capital, Baku, the AP reports.
The presidential election that Aliev won in 2003 was criticized as undemocratic. Many fear a repeat of that experience, including the rioting that broke out afterward, in which three people were killed. Few outside the opposition think it could prevail in the election, even without the severe restrictions the authorities have imposed and the strong pro-government bias in state media, which have accused opposition candidates of being radicals and potential criminals. A.M.