BAKU (EurasiaNet)–Violence erupted in Baku on October 16–as opposition supporters protested Azerbaijan’s presidential election results–which showed the ruling party candidate–Ilham Aliyev–winning in a landslide. Opposition leaders and international observers said the election was marred by numerous irregularities.
Police–backed by Interior Ministry forces and black-clad special riot troops–sealed Freedom Square in central Baku and cut off access to the headquarters of leading opposition parties in an effort to contain popular discontent over the reports of massive vote fraud. Authorities also revoked a permit granted to opposition forces to hold a rally in central Baku planned for October 16.
At least five people were killed in a October 16 clash between an estimated 15,000 supporters of opposition presidential candidate Isa Gambar–the leader of the Musavat Party–and roughly 5,000 police. "The police went crazy–they were out of control," an eyewitness told EurasiaNet. "The Musavat supporters also went crazy."
Police savagely beat protesters–using what some witnesses described as "excessive force." The indiscriminate police action also resulted in numerous journalists suffering injuries. Opposition supporters offered stiff resistance–wielding self-styled weapons–including branches broken off trees and metal pipes taken from construction sites. At one point–an opposition supporter reportedly drove a truck through a massed group of police. In addition–groups of Musavat loyalists were roaming around Baku intimidating shopkeepers into removing pictures of retiring President Heidar Aliyev and his son Ilham from store windows.
During the late evening of election day–October 15–security forces stormed the Musavat Party headquarters–making dozens of arrests. Peter Eicher–the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observer mission–was caught up in the melee–and was on the receiving end of several truncheon blows delivered by police. "The police behavior was disgusting," Eicher told a EurasiaNet contributor.
"Azerbaijani police are notorious for violently suppressing protesters," Peter Bouckaert–a Human Rights Watch researcher who was in Baku to monitor the election–said in a written statement October 16. "This is the worst case that we have seen during the election process."
According to Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission–with over 90 percent of the ballots tabulated–Ilham Aliyev received 79.5 percent of the vote. Gambar was the nearest competitor–garnering just over 12 percent. Six other presidential candidates split the remainder. The results appear to confirm the first dynastic transfer of power in a former Soviet republic.
Opposition leaders–including Gambar–the National Independence Party’s Etibar Mamedov and the Popular Front’s Ali Karimli–refused to recognize the election results–maintaining that the government rigged the vote. "The elections were held undemocratically and involved falsifications–and therefore we decided not to recognize their outcome," the Interfax news agency quoted Popular Front spokesman Ishaq Avazoglu as saying.
Speaking at a news conference–Gambar declared himself the winner–and vowed to continue mounting popular protests until the government admitted that it had resorted to fraud. Gambar later went into hiding on October 16–apparently out of fear of arrest–a source told EurasiaNet.
Opposition media sought to press Gambar’s claim. "Isa Gambar is the president," said an editorial in the Yeni Musavat Daily. "All the foreign observation missions and the entire world–as well as the Azerbaijani people who voted for him–know this is a fact. The nation said ‘no’ to Heidar Aliyev’s son."
According to an exit poll conducted by the Turan news agency and the ADAM sociological research center–Gambar received a plurality of the vote–46.2 percent. Ilham Aliyev received just over 24 percent–according to the exit poll. Such a result in the actual election would have forced a second-round run-off between the two.
International observers were not going so far as to say Ilham Aliyev had stolen the election–but they did note that the vote was marred by numerous irregularities. An OSCE observer–for example–noted that voters were improperly denied the ability to cast a ballot in Baku.
A statement issued by the Federation of Human Rights Organizations of Azerbaijan said "hundreds of thousands" of voters had been improperly denied the right to vote because local election commission officials had arbitrarily removed them from lists of registered voters. The NGO also said the government organized "special mobile groups" that traveled to various voting precincts–casting multiple votes for Aliyev. Other monitoring missions reported ballot-box stuffing and action taken by authorities to prevent opposition supporters–independent observers and journalists from observing the ballot counting process. According to opposition leaders–the directors of state enterprises distributed dozens of pre-marked ballots for Aliyev to employees and ordered them to cast the votes or face dismissal.
State media largely refrained from covering the unrest. Government officials were similarly quiet in the immediate aftermath of the afternoon clash. US Ambassador Reno Harnish–in commen’s broadcast by state television late October 15–appealed to all sides to show restraint.
Some opposition observers predicted that government vote-rigging would backfire. They asserted the extent of the government’s fraud would render Ilham Aliyev’s administration illegitimate in the eyes of large numbers of Azerbaijanis. The newspaper went on to suggest that the vote has the potential to spark protests that culminate in Ilham’s demise.
"Yesterday’s election was the most disgraceful one in Azerbaijan’s history," said a commentary in the Azadliq daily. "Election results were also falsified under Heidar Aliyev–but not by this much. … Ilham is caught iin a trap of his own making."
RUSSIA–TURKEY QUICK TO OFFER CONGRATULATIONS
The leaders of some of Azerbaijan’s closest strategic allies were quick to offer congratulations to Ilham Aliyev. Among the countries to quickly recognize the voting results were Russia and Turkey–key neighboring powers. In a congratulatory telephone call–Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hope that Aliyev’s election would boost bilateral relations.
"Your convincing victory in the elections has shown that the people of Azerbaijan supports the well-balanced program you have proposed for the country’s development and its foreign political course," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Putin as telling the Azerbaijani president-elect.
"There are favorable conditions for the further strengthening of the traditional partnership between the two countries [Azerbaijan and Russia]," Putin continued. "All this meets the interests of our peoples and is an important factor to ensure security and the development of the Caucasian region."
Some observers in Moscow believe Azerbaijani leaders have received assurances that the Kremlin will provide political support for Ilham during the election-aftermath. In return–Baku will explore steps to strengthen bilateral relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also telephoned Aliyev on October 16–offering congratulations and reaffirming the desire to strengthen the special strategic and economic relationship between Ankara and Baku–the Anatolia news agency reported.
The United States–which called for free and fair elections and urged Azerbaijanis to refrain from violence–offered no immediate comment on the election results. On October 15–before election results became available–US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher hinted that trouble could be brewing. "We call on Azerbaijani authorities to follow through on their commitmen’s to provide observers with access to the vote tabulation process," he said–"and to fulfill its responsibilities for the safeguarding of its citizens and their rights. That’s where we are."