Azerbaijan Strongman Celebrates Crushing Poll Win


Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Thursday celebrated a landslide poll win to tie up a third term and further prolong his family's vice-like rule, in a vote rubbished by opponents as riddled with violations.

With some 98 percent of the ballots counted, Aliyev had sealed a crushing majority at Wednesday's vote in the ex-Soviet state notching up around 84.6 percent, with main opposition challenger Jamil Hasanli far behind in second place with 5.5 percent, the electoral commission said.

"The presidential election in Azerbaijan was a triumph for democracy," Aliyev said in a televised address to the nation early Thursday morning.

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

But Hasanli's election campaign has alleged there were "massive" electoral violations across the resource-rich country and promised not to accept the result.

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.

Aliyev, who has near-total control over the media in the country, had stayed away from televised debates and passed up public rallies ahead of the polls.

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

'Massive violations across the country'

Main challenger Hasanli, however, has blasted the election, 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.

"Massive violations were carried out across the country," the Hasanli campaign said in a statement during the vote.

The Hasanli camp "does not accept the election result or recognize it as free or fair," the statement said.

Fueled 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.

During voting at one polling station in Baku -- a city which has undergone a glitzy building boom in recent years -- voters had waited in silence to cast their ballots under an Azerbaijani flag.

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, but faced major obstacles getting their message heard.

Hasanli, who has accused the Aliyev clan of massive corruption, had pledged to step down after two years if elected and switch Azerbaijan to a parliamentary system.

Rights groups accused the authorities of an intense clampdown on dissent ahead of the poll, including the jailing of scores of critics on charges the opposition say are trumped-up.

Aliyev is expected to continue treading a cautious path between the West and Russia after his expected victory, ensuring that Azerbaijan remains a key energy source for Europe and a U.S. ally while not upsetting its giant northern neighbor Russia.

At home, he faces a tougher task keeping rising discontent over high-level corruption and inequality in check.

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