BAKU, Nov. 8 (Reuters) - International monitors criticised on Monday a parliamentary election in Azerbaijan that tightened President Ilham Aliyev's grip on power in the strategically important oil and gas exporting nation.
Aliyev loyalists swept the board in Sunday's election, described by one Western diplomat who observed voting as an "absolute sham".
"... the conduct of these elections overall was not sufficient to constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of the country," monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and European Parliament said in a statement.
The monitors cited an "uneven playing field" for candidates, limitations on media freedom and freedom of assembly, instances of ballot stuffing and vote count irregularities.
Aliyev has been cushioned from foreign calls for reform by Azerbaijan's strategic importance to the West as an energy exporter and transit route for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
With almost all the votes counted, Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party had increased its share in the 125-seat parliament to over 70 seats from 64 previously, and a host of small parties and "independents" loyal to the government took almost all the rest.
The leading opposition party, Musavat, failed to win a single seat in the assembly, and criticised the vote on Monday as "illegitimate" and a challenge to the Western democracies.
The mainly Muslim country of 9 million people is an ally of the United States in a volatile region bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia at the threshold of Central Asia.
The ruling party said the vote was "free and fair" and the Central Election Commission said "no serious violations were registered that could affect the result." The opposition has often 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.