BAKU (Reuters)–Incumbent Ilham Aliyev swept to victory in Azerbaijan’s presidential election Wednesday with 80.5 percent of the vote, an exit poll conducted by the local Rey ("Opinion") polling firm said.
Opposition candidate Gulamhussein Alibayli came a distant second with only 5.4 percent of the vote, the head of the firm, Rizvan Abbasov, told reporters.
Authorities in Azerbaijan said turnout was high on Wednesday in a presidential election boycotted by the opposition and almost certain to return Aliyev for a second term in the oil-producing state.
The opposition says the election is a farce, designed only to extend the Aliyev family dynasty for another five years in the former Soviet republic. Most of the other candidates are considered loyal to the government.
The state electoral commission said 64.9 percent of voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m. Polls closed two hours later, to the sound of the national anthem.
The ruling party prepared to celebrate, erecting a stage and giant screens in the park outside its Baku headquarters. "What’s the point in voting when the result is known in advance?" asked passerby Gasan Mamedov, 48.
Most opposition leaders are boycotting, alleging curbs on democracy and media freedom make participation pointless. Rights groups back their complaints, and point to a personality cult around Ilham’s late father, long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, which they say makes dissent dangerous.
The country of 8.3 million people lies at a strategic crossroads between East and West, sandwiched between Russia and Iran and straddling a region emerging as a major energy transit route from Central Asia to Europe.
Opposition politicians and journalists say Western governmen’s have toned down their criticism of Azeri authoritarianism for fear of losing a strategic ally and access to its oil reserves in the Caspian Sea — also courted by Russia.
But the government insists Aliyev is genuinely popular. His reign has coincided with an oil boom driving one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and filling government coffers, despite the global financial crisis.
"I voted for our dear president," said Sona Azimova, a 69-year-old pensioner in Baku, where the fast cars and building boom strike a dramatic contrast with the poverty of rural areas.
"Look how our country is flourishing," she said. "He is the only one who helps and thinks about the people."
A win for the mustachioed 46-year-old would give him a second five-year term, his last under the constitution. Dressed in a dark gray suit and accompanied by his wife, he paused for photographers while voting but said nothing to reporters.
In 2003, Aliyev succeeded his father, a former local KGB chief who went on to rule Azerbaijan for more than 30 years as Soviet-era Communist party boss and then as president.
With his father’s portrait displayed at almost every turn, Aliyev won over 76 percent of the vote. The opposition cried foul, but protests were crushed by police.
Observers will watch closely for Thursday’s initial assessment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has almost 400 monitors in the field. The opposition Musavat party has already filed for permission to protest on Saturday.
"We live under a monarchy," said opposition supporter Rafik Guliyev, 35. "We want change and to live in a normal society."
Baku has traditionally tried to balance itself between the West and its former Soviet master Russia.
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 all sides for much longer.
Analysts say a smooth election day, despite a flawed campaign, could be enough to win a more favorable report card from the West. Official results are expected early on Thursday.