Baku, Azerbaijan - President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan enjoys the kind of parliamentary majority that most Western leaders would envy, according to electoral results indicating that he won a resounding 85 percent of the vote while the main opposing candidate languished with just 5 percent.
But these results, released on Thursday following the October 9 presidential election, have been condemned by opposition parties and some international monitors who say the vote wasn't fair.
In a joint statement given by the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe (PACE) and representatives from the European Parliament released on Thursday, they declared the elections to be "free, fair and transparent" with "no pressure exerted on voters".
However, at a press conference that descended into a fray as pro-government journalists heckled and shouted down observers, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gave a wildly different assessment on Thursday.
Tana de Zuleta, head of the OSCE long-term observation mission said: "The limitations placed on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, the lack of a level playing field, the allegations of intimidation all came in the lead up to an election day that our observers found to be seriously flawed."
For Turkan Huseynova, the latter assertions ring true. Sitting in her apartment in north Baku, her six-month-old child Araz gurgles and paws his mother's face. Araz has never seen his father Rashadat, 29, who manages to combine a successful career as an analyst at BP with the risky pastime of political activism, an activity that has led to his current incarceration on weapons charges. His lawyers say the allegations are trumped up, and he faces the possibility of spending the next 12 years behind bars.
As part of the youth opposition N!DA civic movement, Turkan said her family was destined to be targeted in a nation where dissent is rarely tolerated. Turkan was fired from her TV job allegedly due to her pro-opposition views.
For the last six months, Rashadat has not been permitted to see his son or attend the funeral of his grandfather who slashed his wrists after receiving news of his grandson's potential sentence.
If my husband and my friends are still in jail as political prisoners then what can an election do for me?
"This election result was no surprise for me, I expected it," Turkan said. "For post-Soviet societies free elections are not so important for us. If my husband and my friends are still in jail as political prisoners then what can an election do for me?"
The Azerbaijani government has come under fire from European Union officials and human rights groups for a concerted crackdown on opposition figures including the introduction of jail terms for insulting the president on social media and astronomical fines for unsanctioned protests.
Aliyev controversially changed the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term.
A total of nine largely pro-government candidates ran against incumbent president Aliyev, 51, who has reigned over the oil rich republic since 2003 following the death of his father, former president Heydar Aliyev.
A continuation of the governing party's rule was all but certain though the president faced a vocal challenge by academic and historian Camil Hasanli, 61.
Teymur, an unemployed engineer who supports Hasanli said: "We do not want Ilham Aliyev to be president for a third time. This is not right, this is not democracy; they just take from us."
Throughout his campaign, Hasanli shocked many by alleging high level corruption among ruling family members, including the President, his wife and his daughters, subjects considered strictly taboo in conservative Azerbaijani society.
Equally a target of Hasanli's ire are the international institutions that Azerbaijan is a party to, some of whose members he accuses as preaching democratic principles in public but in private falling prey to Azerbaijan's so called "caviar diplomacy", a common refrain amongst government critics to describe the regime's well-oiled lobbying machine which coaxes some members away from criticising the human rights situation.
"When Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, we all thought that we might develop good European values, but instead it was they who adopted the values of Azerbaijan," he said.
'I only know him'
In downtown Baku, where lines of prestige SUVs clog the potholed streets and gleaming modern apartment blocks rub up against gloomy teahouses with fading wallpaper, one could be forgiven for missing that an election had taken place.
Advertising and fanfare was minimal Aliyev effectively ran no campaign, organised no rallies and did not even turn up to televised debates. The debates were notable for the level of hostility aimed at rival Hasanli who at one point was nearly hit by a bottle of water hurled by pro-government candidate Hafiz Haciyev from the Modern Musavat party.
|Azerbaijan has experienced rapid economic growth in recent years due to oil exports [AP]
Azerbaijan's electoral process risked becoming briefly eclipsed by the claims by Berlin-based Medan TV, an Azeri media company critical of the government, that a smartphone app created by the Central Election Commission had, in apparent error, revealed predetermined results of a landslide Aliyev victory the day before the voting had even begun.
Requests for comment from the developer Happy Baku were not answered and the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of the alleged programmer were swiftly deleted.
Foreign ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev was jubilant following the result announced on Thursday after nearly all of the ballots had been counted.
"President Aliyev is a very popular figure in the country and I was expecting huge support for him," Abdullayev said. "There were a group of people that were trying to present the situation negatively but then I saw that they were completely rejected by the pro-government press. Also the opposition was heavily supported by the foreign media so they had ample means to broadcast their message."
As the exit polls on election night trumpeted a resounding victory for President Aliyev who claimed in a pre-recorded TV address that it was 'another serious step towards democracy'. Hasanli's campaign officials declared the result illegitimate, called for it to be annulled and vowed to challenge it in court.
By the seafront boulevard on Azadliq ('freedom') Square, the scene of bloody confrontations between protesters and police following previous elections, construction worker Nitag was in high spirits. As he spoke, the fountains behind him began to erupt with jets of water and fire and the refrain of Brahms' 'Hungarian Dance' blasted over loudspeakers.
He gestured towards the spectacle, half dancing: "You see this view? He (Aliyev) made all of this, he has a great relationship with the people. I didn't know about any other candidates and I didn't want to vote for anyone else, I know only him. I want to send him a kiss."
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Source: Al Jazeera