Aliyev wins, Azeri opposition cries foul
By Radio Free Europe
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev appears headed for re-election to a third five-year term by a landslide amid allegations by the opposition of massive fraud.
Aliyev supporters began celebrating his widely anticipated election victory within hours of the closing of polls on October 9, gathering in front of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party headquarters in Baku.
Deputy party head and Executive Secretary Ali Ahmadov said that "Ilham Aliyev's victory is the Azerbaijani people's victory."
With nearly 80% of the October 9 vote counted, electoral authorities said Aliyev had nearly 85% of the vote. The results showed the candidate of the united opposition, Camil Hasanli, with around just 5%.
Hasanli has accused the authorities of vote fraud and ballot
stuffing, saying the "total falsification of elections is a brutal violation of people's right to elections."
In a video address released after partial results showed him with an unassailable lead, Aliyev described the balloting as free, transparent, and a "triumph for democracy".
Critics see a corrupt, nepotistic regime that systematically crushes political dissent. They also say the West's desire for Azerbaijani energy supplies has prevented the international community from taking any consequential action against the government over its human rights violations. Ahead of the vote, Western-based rights groups accused authorities of a massive crackdown against opposition supporters, including the jailing of critics on fabricated charges.
Aliev has held power since succeeding his father, longtime ruler Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. In 2009, he backed a constitutional amendment that removed a two-term limit for holding the presidency.
The opposition had previously dismissed the polling organizations that were permitted to conduct surveys during the vote as having ties to the government. Hasanli told RFE/RL his aides had gathered evidence of violations on a large scale. "The information that I have been receiving from my observers from across the country is providing proof of mass falsifications," he said. "How can you talk about elections where the official results have been determined a day before the voting?"
An opposition regional election observer in Beylagan, 260 kilometers from Baku, told RFE/RL he had been beaten after he appeared at a polling station for Hasanli.
Opposition activists have complained on social media of witnessing carousel voting - individuals or groups voting repeatedly in different polling stations and often driven around in buses - and a video has surfaced allegedly documenting ballot-stuffing at a polling station in northwestern Azerbaijan. The authorities said the video was a fabrication.
"If previously the authorities used to start rigging elections after 5 or 6 pm, this time they started doing it from the early morning, probably due to their lack of confidence," Hasan Kerimov, a Hasanli representative, told Reuters.
"Our observers, our members of [the Central Election] Commission with the consultative mandate were barred from entering many polling stations and some of them were even taken to police stations."
Representatives from the observer mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said they had not yet observed any violations. More than 70% of Azerbaijan's roughly five million registered voters cast ballots in the October 9 poll, according to electoral officials.
Earlier, New Azerbaijan Party spokesman Huseyn Pasayev said voting was continuing normally and, in turn, accused the opposition of attempting to "sabotage" the vote.
"However, the observers and supporters of opposition candidates in the field are trying to commit sabotage. Of course all of the attempts were prevented. But this kind of information is continuing to come to our office," Pasayev said.
"They are trying to create a perception that there are mass irregularities. They are doing it by using all of the possibilities at their disposal," he added. "They are doing these things more actively when they see international observers coming to the polling stations."
However, Khadija Ismayilova of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service said there was consistent proof that the voting has not been free and fair.
"Many citizen journalists are sending in the videos, our correspondents are filming and documenting irregularities, so it's clear that the organized effort for falsifying the results is going on a full scale, so basically its clear that the elections are not free and fair," she said.
International observers from the Organization For Security And Cooperation In Europe (OSCE) are due to deliver their verdict on the fairness of Azerbaijan's presidential election. The OSCE says its monitoring mission for the Azerbaijani polls included some 390 observers from 42 countries.
Janez Lenarcic, head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights within the OSCE, said the authorities must ensure that the election is fair.
"Elections are always a test of democracy in every country. And it's the same for Azerbaijan. We are here just to observe. We are not part of the process, so to say. It is the stakeholders in Azerbaijan and especially the authorities of Azerbaijan that are responsible for the conduct of this process," Lenarcic said.
Western-based human rights groups, citing government crackdowns on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and opposition supporters, said there were no conditions in Azerbaijan for a free and fair election.
Previous votes in the oil-producing Caspian Sea country have been condemned for failing to meet democratic standards. Official results said Aliyev got nearly 90% of the vote when he won election five years ago.
Aliyev, 51, had been expected to easily secure re-election to a third term. Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were quick to congratulate Aliyev. The Turkish Anadolu news agency said both Turkish leaders telephoned Aliev to wish him well for another term.
The president's supporters argued that he deserved re-election because of Azerbaijan's economic growth and rising standards of living, which have come about in large part due to the country's lucrative energy exports to Europe.
"I voted for the president because he is the person who secured stability in the republic during the last 10 years of his rule, and we saw clear results from his activity," Baku resident Iskander Kerimov told Reuters after casting his ballot.
"I think he will be working hard in the future as well as for the sake of the country, for the sake of stability, peace, and prosperity."
With the political opposition largely marginalized, analysts said there was little doubt that the official results would show Aliyev winning by a large margin.
Supporters of Hasanli accuse the president's regime of corruption and human rights violations. The president's supporters argue that strong economic growth and a rising standard of living in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state demonstrate that Aliyev deserves re-election.
Aliyev was declared the winner of the previous election, five years ago, with 89% of the vote. Western observers condemned that vote as neither free nor fair.
In a pre-election report released on October 8, Amnesty International said the Azerbaijani authorities had implemented a "downward spiral of oppression", harassing, intimidating, and arresting opposition supporters.
"With new arrests of civil society activists reported almost daily, it's hard to keep up with the sheer number and the speed at which dissenters are being persecuted," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia director.
"The persecution is so widespread and frequent it's difficult to assess just how bad the current situation really is," Dalhuisen added.
The Amnesty International report said the human rights group had declared 14 Azerbaijanis "prisoners of conscience", or people who had been jailed "solely for expressing their views or taking peaceful action".
Citing a weakened independent media, the oppression of nongovernmental organizations, and the arrests of opposition supporters on "fabricated charges", Amnesty International said the crackdown "calls into question the value of holding an election".
In a report released in September, Human Rights Watch noted that the international community has been critical of the Azerbaijani government's "serious shortcomings in meeting its commitments and respect for human rights".
However, the report said this criticism has not affected Baku's relations with other countries, "perhaps due to Azerbaijan's geostrategic importance and hydrocarbon resources".
Local human rights activist Leyla Yunus told Reuters that she did not expect Western observers to be overly critical in their assessment of the election.
"I am not an optimist when it comes to the assessment of the OSCE observer mission, as for many years they have usually cited all the shortcomings in their interim reports and in the end they announced the elections valid and recognized the results," Yunus said.