Azerbaijan goes to polls in presidential vote

Incumbent Ilham Aliyev expected to stay in office, riding on success of economic policies in recent years.

    Voting is under way in Azerbaijan's presidential election, a poll that seems almost certain to keep incumbent president Ilham Aliyev in power, while an opposition candidate claimed the election was rigged.

    The presidential race in the former Soviet republic was dominated by Aliyev, whose low-key campaign for a third term reflected his confidence that he will roll over the main opposition challenger and eight fringe candidates.

    The opposition's hopes of challenging Aliyev suffered a humiliating setback when election officials refused to register its original candidate because he had dual Russian and Azerbaijani citizenship, something explicitly banned by the constitution.

    International rights groups have accused Aliyev of pressuring and harassing government critics, leaving them little breathing space to campaign.

    Aliyev's main opponent Camil Hasali claimed that his election observers have witnessed widespread vote rigging at polling stations.

    "Lamentably, many officials are taking part in vote rigging, thus abetting a grave state crime," he said.

    Under Aliyev, the nation of 9 million has basked in oil riches that have more than tripled its gross domestic product.

    Political dynasty

    Aliyev inherited the presidency from his father, Geidar Aliyev, who had ruled Azerbaijan first as the Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for the greater part of three decades.

    The elder Aliyev fully dominated the political scene, and just a few months before his death secured his son's victory in an October 2003 presidential election that drew Western observer criticism over massive violations and triggered violent clashes between protesters and police.

    Initially dismissed by foes as a pale shadow of his powerful father, Ilham Aliyev quickly consolidated his power and stifled dissent.

    He was re-elected by a landslide in a 2008 vote boycotted by major opposition parties and again criticised by Western observers. He then rammed through a constitutional referendum that scrapped presidential term limits.

    International rights groups have accused him of pressuring and harassing government critics.

    A recent Human Rights Watch report said that the clampdown on freedom of expression and assembly had intensified in the months preceding the vote.

    The government, however, loosened the reins ahead of the ballot, withdrawing its long-held ban on rallies in the centre of the capital.

    While leaving little breathing space for his domestic foes, Aliyev has expanded energy and security ties with the West, becoming an indispensable regional partner for the United States and the European Union.

    Tatyana Golikova, a Baku resident and Aliyev supporter said she expects "the continuation of the right policies of our President Ilham Aliyev".

    Results were expected to be announced Thursday.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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