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    Azeri election not fully democratic: monitors

    HotNewsTurkey with wires
    16.10.2008 - 11:22 | Son Güncelleme:

    An election that resulted in a landslide win for Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev fell short of fully democratic standards, European monitors said on Thursday. (UPDATED)

    Opposition leaders said curbs on democracy and media freedom made participation pointless, and condemned the vote as a charade to extend the Aliyev family's hold on the oil-producing state for another five years.

     

    European monitors led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted "considerable progress," but voiced concern over the lack of competition and media freedom, as well as shortcomings in vote counting.

     

    Authorities in Azerbaijan -- a former Soviet state where Russia and the West are vying for influence over oil and gas reserves -- said Aliyev won 89 percent, and put turnout at 77 percent.

     

    Hundreds of the president's jubilant supporters streamed into the streets shortly after polls closed at 7:00 p.m. (1400 GMT) Wednesday and celebrated his victory late into the night. Caravans of cars flying Azeri flags and bearing portraits of the president clogged traffic near the boardwalk along the Caspian Sea.

     

    But monitors said the election was "characterized by a lack of robust competition and vibrant political discourse facilitated by the media, and thus did not reflect all principles of a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election," Reuters reported.

     

    They noted efforts to create "more equitable conditions" for candidates, but said shortcomings were observed "during the crucial phase of vote counting and tabulation."

     

    The opposition accused the authorities of inventing turnout figures and forcing people to vote. The OSCE had earlier criticized the campaign and restrictions on independent media.

     

    The report noted that Aliyev himself did not personally campaign. Five other candidates were considered generally pro-government.

     

    ECONOMIC BOOM
    It is unlikely the report goes as far as the opposition would have liked in criticizing the poll.

     

    Opposition politicians have previously accused Western governments of toning down their criticism of Azeri democracy for fear of losing a strategic ally and access to its oil reserves in the Caspian Sea -- also courted by Russia.

     

    "The authorities have no respect for the people, to the extent they didn't even bother to imitate democratic elections," Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat party, told a news conference.

     

    The country of 8.3 million people, mainly Shi'ite Muslims, lies at a strategic crossroads between East and West, sandwiched between Russia and Iran.

     

    Victory for Aliyev was never in doubt. The government says he is genuinely popular, and points to an oil-fueled economic boom that appears to have trickled some way down to the rural poor.

     

    Rights groups say a personality cult that began with Aliyev's father Heydar, who ran Azerbaijan in various guises for more than three decades, still persists five years after his death, making dissent dangerous.

     

    The war in August between Azerbaijan's neighbors Georgia and Russia has deepened concern among Western governments over energy transit routes running from Central Asia to Europe through the Caucasus.

     

    Analysts say the West will be reluctant to come down too hard on Aliyev and risk pushing him toward Russia.

     

    As the nation’s energy wealth has filtered through the population, however, the opposition has seen its support dwindle.

     

    Samir Mamevod, 35, dismissed opposition suggestions of vote rigging: "When a country is new in its independence, it needs a strong leader and stability for the first ten or twenty years. We have such a leader in Ilham Aliyev," he was quoted by the AP as saying.

     

    Photo: Reuters

     

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