Azeri Leader Gets Landslide Win in Vote Boycotted by Opposition

(Bloomberg) -- Azeri President Ilham Aliyev secured a fourth term in office, with exit polls showing he got well over 80 percent of votes in Wednesday’s elections that were boycotted by the opposition.

Aliyev received 82.5 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll conducted by a Baku-based research center, ELS. French polling company Opinion Way found that he had 86.5 percent backing. Qudrat Hasanquliyev, leader of a small pro-government party, came in second with 4 percent, according to ELS. Voter turnout was 68 percent.

The country’s main opposition parties and groups stayed away after Aliyev brought forward the election date by six months in a surprise move in February. All but one of seven other candidates on the ballot have praised the government during debates on public television.

“These are fake elections,” said Richard Kauzlarich, co-director of the Center for Energy Science and Policy at George Mason University who served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in 1994-1997. “The elections are run by the same presidential apparatus that has suppressed real political opposition, denied freedom of election, intimidated people by arresting bloggers and opposition media, and persecuted their families.”

This is Azerbaijan’s first election since the country voted to change its constitution in a 2016 referendum that handed more powers to the president and extended the term of office to seven years from five. Aliyev further tightened his family’s grip on power by appointing his wife, Mehriban, as Azerbaijan’s first vice-president last year, a post created by the referendum. His father, Heydar, ruled independent Azerbaijan for a decade until he died in 2003 and also led the republic when it was part of the Soviet Union for more than 13 years until 1982.

TV Debates

The election were monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has criticized previous contests in Azerbaijan as deeply flawed. Azeri officials reject accusations of vote-rigging and crackdowns on dissent from opponents and international rights groups.

Aliyev didn’t take part in televised debates or attend campaign rallies held by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. With no independent polls to gauge public opinion, government-funded surveys claimed well over 80 percent of voters will support Aliyev.

The opposition National Council of Democratic Forces and Musavat (Equality) party organized two rallies in the capital, Baku, last month to protest corruption and government crackdowns on dissent. Several thousand people attended the peaceful protests, which were sanctioned by the authorities.

While Azerbaijan has attracted more than $70 billion in investment in energy projects by BP Plc and partners since 1994, its economy has struggled in recent years amid the collapse in oil prices. After gross domestic product slumped 3.8 percent in 2016, Azerbaijan’s first contraction in two decades, the economy recorded anemic growth of 0.1 percent last year.

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