BAKU (Reuters) – Authorities in Azerbaijan said turnout was high on Wednesday in a presidential election boycotted by the opposition and almost certain to return Ilham Aliyev for a second term in the oil-producing state.
The state electoral commission said 33.4 percent of voters had cast ballots within four hours of polls opening at 8 a.m. (11 p.m. EDT Tuesday).
“Today is election day, and our candidate, our president will definitely win,” said a man helping erect a stage and giant screens outside the headquarters of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. He asked not to be named.
Most of the six other candidates are considered loyal to the government. 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 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.
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 — despite the global financial crisis — and filling government coffers.
“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 rural poverty elsewhere.
“Look how our country is flourishing. He is the only one who helps and thinks about the people.”
Aliyev voted at School No. 6 in the capital. Dressed in a dark gray suit and accompanied by his wife, he paused for photographers but said nothing to waiting reporters.
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 governments have toned down their criticism of Azerbaijan’s democracy for fear of losing a strategic ally and access to its oil reserves in the Caspian Sea.
A win for the mustachioed 46-year-old would give him a second five-year term, his last under the constitution.
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.
His father’s portrait displayed at almost every turn, Aliyev won 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.
“Turnout will be low, but everyone who goes to the polling station will vote for the president,” said analyst Leila Aliyeva. “The West has other priorities in Azerbaijan, not the democratization of our 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. Polls close at 7 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT), and official results are expected early on Thursday.