Soviet-era Azerbaijan was subdivided administratively into one autonomous republic, Nakhichevan, an area separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a thin strip of Armenian territory, which had its own parliament of 110 members; and an autonomous region, Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). Azerbaijan dissolved NK's status as an autonomous region in November 1991 in an attempt to reassert central control. NK has claimed an independent existence since December 1991, and a swath of territory around it has been occupied by NK Armenian forces. Azerbaijan has 59 districts ( rayons ) and 11 cities, whose executive heads or mayors are appointed and dismissed by the president. Although the constitution called for the local election of legislative assemblies (councils) by the end of 1997, these elections did not take place until December 1999 (with runoffs in some municipalities in March 2000). In these races, nearly 2,700 municipal and district assemblies were formed. Some 36,000 candidates contested for 22,087 seats in these assemblies. Of these candidates, 18,000 were sponsored by 26 political parties, while others run as independents. The election was not viewed by many international monitors as "free and fair" because of government interference in the electoral process, including the stacking of territorial and precinct electoral commissions with members of the ruling party and other local government supporters, the harassment or disqualification of opposition candidates, and ballot box stuffing. Many of the local assemblies found it difficult to begin work because their roles were somewhat unclear and local executive heads, appointed by Aliyev, proved somewhat reluctant to share power.