Azerbaijan ruling party wins polls but observers question results

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Only one opposition candidate has made it to the new legislature

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's ruling party on Monday celebrated a huge win in snap parliamentary polls but international observers and the opposition denounced sweeping violations ranging from fraud to intimidation.

Faced with public discontent over a slowing economy, Aliyev, 58, hoped to boost the government's image by holding early elections and replacing discredited old elites with younger technocrats.

His ruling party won a majority in Sunday's election but the opposition claimed it was "totally falsified" and several parties boycotted the vote altogether.

The sole opposition politician who made it to the new legislature was Erkin Gadirly of Republican Alternative Party (ReAl). All other parties represented in the parliament, the Milli Majlis, are seen as pro-Aliyev.

The Musavat opposition party demanded that the result be annulled and fresh polls held.

Counting showed the Yeni (New) Azerbaijan party with 72 seats in the 125-member parliament, according to early results of the first-past-the-post ballot, the central election commission said.

But in a strongly worded joint report, international observers denounced numerous voting irregularities, saying restrictive legislation and the political environment prevented a level playing field.

"Significant procedural violations during counting and the tabulation raised concerns whether the results were established honestly," said observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

They criticised numerous instances of ballot stuffing and multiple voting, pressure on voters, candidates, and observers as well as the absence of campaign coverage in mainstream media.

More than 5.3 million people were eligible to vote, and turnout stood at 47.8 percent, election officials said.

- Public anger -

The ruling party had promised a democratic election, but opposition parties have accused the government of limiting their ability to campaign and several parties boycotted the vote.

On Sunday night, Vice Prime Minister and Yeni Azerbaijan executive secretary Ali Ahmedov congratulated his party on "yet another great victory" after exit polls put it on a course to win a majority.

"We are grateful to those who have voted in support of our president's policies," Ahmedov told journalists.

Elections had originally been scheduled for November this year but in December Aliyev called early polls after a surprise dissolution of the legislature that is dominated by his party.

The move followed the replacement of the prime minister and a number of veteran officials within the presidential administration and the government.

Analyst Anar Mammadli said public anger over economic problems has been growing in the South Caucasus country of nine million people.

"Aliyev chose to hold elections eight months ahead of schedule as he fears that protest sentiment would grow further by November," he said ahead of the vote.

Highly dependent on oil exports, the country has since 2015 been hit by a drop in energy prices and the global economic downturn, and has sharply devalued its currency, the manat.

- 'Arrested and tortured' -

With most powers concentrated in the presidency, parliament has a limited role in the Caspian nation's political system.

Electoral commissions are controlled by Aliyev's party and all of the oil-rich country's television stations refused to allocate airtime to the opposition.

Prominent opposition leader Isa Gambar decried draconian restrictions on freedom of assembly, saying "people are being arrested and tortured" for participating in peaceful protests.

None of the elections held in Azerbaijan since Aliyev came to power in 2003 have been recognised as free and fair by international observers.

Aliyev has ruled the ex-Soviet state with an iron fist since he was first elected in 2003, after the death of his father, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era Communist leader and former KGB general Heydar Aliyev.

Under the Aliyev dynasty, Baku has faced strong international criticism for persecuting political opponents and suffocating independent media.