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Azerbaijan's Opposition Cries 'Foul' As President Reelected

Officials count ballots in Baku.
BAKU/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Azerbaijan say President Ilham Aliyev has been reelected to a second five-year term of office in voting on October 15 that was boycotted by the country's main opposition parties.

None of the six candidates who challenged Aliyev at the polls was a well-known figure in Azerbaijan. The main opposition parties have described those candidates as a "puppet opposition" who were running only to give the vote the appearance of an electoral competition.

Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov has announced that Aliyev won just over 89 percent of the vote, followed by Iqbal Firuzovich Agazade, who has led the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, with 2.78 percent.

Panahov also said that despite the opposition boycott, the official voter turnout was about 75 percent -- a figure even higher than the last presidential election, in 2003, when the official results showed about 71 percent of voters cast a ballot.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- which sent more than 400 election observers into Azerbaijan -- criticized the government for campaign irregularities even before election day. It said it was concerned about a ban on public opposition meetings and apparent efforts to coerce students and government workers into attending pro-Aliyev rallies.

The OSCE mission released a statement on October 16 saying Azerbaijan's presidential elections showed "considerable progress" compared to previous votes. Nevertheless, the monitors said the election did not meet all international commitments on democracy. They said the poll "was characterized by a lack of robust competition and vibrant political discourse" and that it did not reflect all the principles of a meaningful, pluralistic, democratic election."

Procedural Snags?

RFE/RL correspondents in Baku asked Penahov about reported irregularities and violations dealing with voter identification at the polls. The election chief dismissed those reports, saying election fraud has not been possible in Azerbaijan since revisions that were introduced after parliamentary elections in 2005.

"There are a lot of questions from voters during election day was about the identification needed to vote and the procedures for voting," Penahov said. "People also asked about their rights as voters -- despite very widely published information about the voting procedures. That's not strange, because there are millions of voters -- somebody could miss this information."

But Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL the day after the vote that electoral fraud was even worse than the five boycotting opposition parties expected.

"What has happened on election day was even worse than we had feared. This is totalitarianism in Azerbaijan," Kerimili said. "Without any consideration for public opinion and international reactions, the falsification was overt. They didn't even try to cover it up. It's a pity."

Azerbaijan's election laws do not require a minimum voter turnout in order to make the presidential vote valid. Still, a high voter turnout has been seen as one way to lend legitimacy to the election results in the face of the opposition boycott.

'Vote Or Else...'

Kenan Aliyev, the director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, said RFE/RL reporters in Baku documented cases in which students and government employees were bussed into polling stations and told they must vote.

"We have been receiving reports of people being bussed to the polling stations," Kenan Aliyev said. "The students, the teachers, and people who are working for the [government] were told that they had to go and participate in this election. We received numerous reports -- and actually, in several cases we documented these reports -- that a lot of voters were basically forced to go to the polling stations."

The RFE/RL service director, who said the vote as "predetermined from the start," said after the voting that the question of transparency and objectivity is central. "Did they meet international standards?" he asked. "That's up to the international observers and the local observers to decide."

Aida Agaseferqizi, a 10th district election commission official in the Binagadi region, boasted to RFE/RL after the polling about having visited voters in her area to tell them they were obliged to cast a ballot.

"I am taking my job very seriously, and I am so confident that I can tell you: I personally went together with our chairman from door-to door to ask every single person to come and vote," Agaseferqizi said. "All the voters know me. And I told them, 'You have to come and cast a ballot.'"

Street Celebrations

Despite the lack of suspense and the complaints of irregularities by the boycotting opposition, the mood on the streets of Baku was buoyant overnight -- in marked contrast to violence that marred the aftermath of the 2003 vote that saw Ilham Aliyev replace his father, Heydar, as president.

Hundreds of the incumbent president's jubilant supporters streamed into the streets shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m. and celebrated his victory late into the night.

Caravans of cars flying Azerbaijani flags and bearing portraits of the president clogged traffic near the boardwalk along the Caspian Sea.

RFE/RL correspondents in Baku noted that a celebratory street concert sponsored by the governing Yeni Azerbaycan Party began before any official results were announced.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service contributed to this report from Baku and Prague