BAKU (AFP)–Western observers said Thursday that Azerbaijan’s presidential election fell short of democratic standards, after the opposition rejected incumbent Ilham Aliyev’s victory with nearly 90 percent of the vote.
Wednesday’s election in the oil-rich former Soviet republic "marked considerable progress but did not meet all of the country’s international commitmen’s," observers said in a joint statement.
It lacked "robust competition and vibrant political discourse… and thus did not reflect all the principles of a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election," said the Organization for Security and co-operation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.
More than 400 observers from the OSCE and other groups monitored the vote, which was boycotted by the opposition, who accuse authorities of persecuting Aliyev’s opponents, muzzling the media and fixing previous polls.
"We do not accept these elections or this government as legitimate," Ali Keremli, head of the Popular Front party, told journalists in the capital Baku. "We, the real democratic forces of Azerbaijan, must unite and act together. We will discuss a plan of action," he said.
But a senior aide to Aliyev, Ali Hasanov, defended the election.
"The opposition knew that President Aliyev would win the elections with a majority, that’s why they didn’t participate," he told reporters, adding: "If the opposition wants to be a legitimate opposition, they need to participate in elections."
Aliyev, 46, was swept to victory in the vote, maintaining the grip on power he has held since succeeding his father as president five years ago. With almost 97 percent of votes counted on Thursday, Aliyev had a huge lead with 88.64 percent of the vote, the elections commission said.
Six other candidates–all loyal to the authorities–lagged far behind, with second-placed Iqbal Agazade getting just 2.78 percent.
Opposition leaders said authorities refused their requested to hold a rally on Saturday.
"Nothing unexpected happened, everybody knew who was going to win the election," said Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat party.
"In this situation the real opposition of Azerbaijan, real democratic forces that boycotted the election, are the winners. But we would like much more for the Azerbaijani people to win."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was quick to congratulate Aliyev in a telephone call, reflecting Moscow’s efforts to rebuild its influence in the country.
"Medvedev expressed his heartfelt congratulations to Aliyev for his comfortable re-election," the Kremlin said in a statement.
"The heads of state noted a mutual interest in further developing multi-faceted cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan," it said.
Both Russia and the United States have been wooing Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country of about eight million people on the Caspian Sea that has been ruled by the Aliyev family for more than 30 years.
Azerbaijan is the starting point of a strategic energy corridor pumping oil and gas to Europe from the Caspian region without going through Russia.
It also neighbors pro-Western Georgia, where Russia fought a brief war in August, and has walked a tightrope by maintaining friendly relations with both Moscow and Washington.
Aliyev’s win gives him a second five-year term after he was first elected in 2003 to succeed his father, Heydar Aliyev, who died the same year.
His rule has benefited from soaring oil revenues that have given Azerbaijan one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, despite widespread corruption.