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Despite Boycott, Turnout High In Azerbaijan's Presidential Vote

Voters rally in support of incumbent President Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev appears set to win another five-year term of office after an election that was boycotted by the country's five largest opposition parties.

Opposition leaders alleged major democratic shortcomings during the campaign, pointing to a history of fettered media and the imprisonment of opposition figures in Azerbaijan.

Of the six candidates actually running against Aliyev in the October 15 vote, none was considered a serious challenger. Parties that boycotted the vote describe them as "puppet opposition candidates."

When reporters from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service visited the election headquarters of those six candidates, they found one was even displaying a portrait of the incumbent candidate.

Azerbaijan's election laws do not require a minimum voter turnout in order to make the presidential vote valid. Still, a high voter turnout is seen as one way to lend legitimacy to the final results.

Of the 4.8 million registered voters, election officials say preliminary results show about 65 percent cast their ballots. By comparison, the final turnout in the last presidential vote, in 2003, was 71 percent.

But the director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Kenan Aliyev, says even the turnout figures are being questioned by the boycotting opposition.

"The reason the opposition candidates decided to boycott this election was the fact that they did not trust this election process. And they don't trust the Central Election Commission or the election officials," Aliyev says. "This election is being run by the same people who oversaw the elections in 2003 and [the parliamentary vote] in 2005. Those elections were questioned by the international community -- by organizations like the OSCE and the Council of Europe. So, by their account, these election commissions can't produce any results [contrary to] the interests of the leading candidate -- in this case, President Ilham Aliyev."

RFE/RL reporters in Baku also have documented cases in which students and government employees were bussed into polling stations and told they must vote. "The students, the teachers, and people who are working for the [government] were told that they have to go and participate in this election," RFE/RL's Aliyev says. "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 question is, were the elections transparent and objective? Did they meet international standards? That's up to the international observers and the local observers to decide."

Important Ally

Opposition politicians and journalists in Azerbaijan complain that some Western governments have toned down their criticism of Azerbaijan's democratic shortcomings for fear of losing a strategic ally in the region and access to Azerbaijan's vast Caspian Sea oil reserves.

The leading opposition bloc, Azadliq (Freedom), said election laws unfairly favor the governing Yeni Azerbaycan Party. Another complaint has been about the campaigning period, which started less than a month before the election. Opposition leaders say campaigning was too short to introduce their programs to voters. Human rights groups have backed those complaints.

But the governing Yeni Azerbaycan Party has dismissed the allegations. It says Aliyev's popularity is unassailable -- largely because of an oil boom that has given Azerbaijan one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, despite the global financial crisis.

Still, apathy about the election could be felt on the streets of the capital. Baku residents interviewed by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service suggest that ordinary citizens weren't very interested in the election and that Aliyev was the only known candidate.

For voters who did cast ballots early in the day, the relatively strong state of Azerbaijan's economy seems to have been a deciding factor. "Everything is OK [in our country] today. I want Azerbaijan to develop further," one voter said.

But those who are trying to make ends meet on a fixed income say growing concerns about the future of the economy brought them out to vote -- despite opposition calls for a boycott. "I want life to be better and pensions to increase," said another Baku resident.

Inherited Policies

At polling stations on the outskirts of Baku, some pensioners said they were voting for Aliyev because he has continued the same policies of his father -- who dominated political life in Azerbaijan for three decades.

In 2003, Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar, a former local KGB chief who ruled Azerbaijan for a total of more than 30 years -- first as Communist Party boss during the Soviet Union and then as president after Azerbaijan gained independence.

In fact, with his father's portrait still displayed prominently across the country, the official election results in 2003 showed Aliyev with 76 percent of the ballot. The opposition said those results were faulty, but their large-scale protests were crushed violently by police.

Observers are waiting to see the initial assessment by the chief international election watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on October 16.

Janez Lenarcic, head of the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, says some 400 observers worked in teams across the country, observing "both the work of the constituency election commissions as well as the precinct election commissions."

Azerbaijan is a country of 8.3 million people that lies at a strategic crossroads between East and West -- sandwiched between Russia and Iran and straddling a region that is emerging as a major energy transit route from Central Asia to Europe.

Baku has traditionally tried to balance itself between the West and Moscow. But this summer's war between Russia and Georgia -- when Moscow made clear its readiness to defend spheres of "privileged interest" in the former Soviet Union -- has cast doubt over Azerbaijan's ability to play both sides for much longer.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report