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Azerbaijan leader triumphant but OSCE says poll flawed

11 october 2013, 13:08
0
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev Thursday secured a crushing election victory that saw his family prolong its decades-long rule but the US, EU and OSCE lent weight to opposition accusations of foul play, AFP reports.

Final results saw Aliyev sweep to a third term with 84.6 percent at Wednesday's vote in the tightly-managed ex-Soviet state, while his main opponent Jamil Hasanli was way down on 5.5 percent in second place, the electoral commission said.

Aliyev lauded the poll as a "triumph for democracy" in a televised address, pledging over the next five years to crack down on rampant corruption that critics claim his rule has fostered.

"The fact that this vote was free and transparent is another important step towards democracy," Aliyev added.

However the United States said it was "disturbed" that the elections failed to meet international norms.

"We repeatedly called on the government of Azerbaijan to ensure a free and fair electoral process, and we regret that this election fell short of international standards," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed the vote was "seriously flawed" and showed how far Azerbaijan was from meeting it commitments on democracy.

Observer mission head Tana de Zulueta said candidates did not have a "level playing field" and that the vote count was "assessed in overwhelmingly negative terms, with 58 per cent of observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad".

"The people of Azerbaijan deserve better," de Zulueta said at a press conference.

The conference later broke up in disarray as pro-government journalists harangued the observers for alleged bias, heckled and wrestled the microphone away from other reporters.

The deputy chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan party Ali Akhmedov also dismissed the observers' report which he said was "biased and not objective".

"This report is a sign of disrespect to the Azerbaijani people," he added.

In Brussels, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and the bloc's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule noted the "serious problems" highlighted by the OSCE and insisted, in a statement, that they "need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its international commitments".

The 51-year-old Aliyev came to power in a disputed 2003 vote after the death of his powerful father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss who ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people for the preceding 10 years.

He was re-elected in 2008 with 89 percent of the vote in a poll called neither free nor fair by Western observers and pushed through a referendum a year later that allowed him to run this time round.

Some 72 percent of Azerbaijan's roughly five million registered voters cast their ballots, the central electoral commission said.

'We will fight these falsifications'

Main challenger Hasanli pledged to challenge the result in court, alleging a string of violations, including voters being bussed round to cast ballots at multiple polling stations, ballot-stuffing and observers being barred from monitoring the vote.

"We will use all legal means to fight these falsifications," Hasanli said at a press conference Thursday.

Authorities in Baku gave the opposition permission to hold a rally at a location outside the city centre for two hours on Saturday afternoon.

"We are sure that with the strength of the people and strength of the youth, we will prevail," Hasanli said.

Fuelled by billions of petrodollars, living standards in the mainly Muslim nation have soared in the past decade, with Azerbaijan becoming an increasingly important energy supplier to Europe and an ally of NATO.

As well as being relatively unchallenged at home, Aliyev has enjoyed warm relations with Washington and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first to congratulate him.

Normally fragmented, Azerbaijan's weakened opposition -- much of which boycotted the 2008 poll -- in May seemed primed for a genuine challenge after rallying around a single candidate.

Hasanli caused a stir in televised debates by accusing the president and his family of massive corruption, but struggled to get his message heard in a stifling pre-election atmosphere.

Rights groups accused the authorities of an intense clampdown on dissent ahead of the poll, including the jailing of scores of critics.

Aliyev is expected to continue treading a cautious path between the West and Russia, ensuring that Azerbaijan remains a key energy alternative for Europe and a US ally while not upsetting its giant northern neighbour Russia.

A huge issue for his new term will be the festering conflict with Yerevan over the Armenian-controlled region of Nagorny Karabakh which Baku had threatened to win back by force.

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