(Updates with voter turnout in fifth paragraph, fraud allegations in sixth.)
Oct. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Azerbaijan votes for its president today, with incumbent Ilham Aliyev set to win a third term to extend his family’s four-decade rule over the largest oil producer in the former Soviet Union after Russia and Kazakhstan.
Aliyev, 51, may get as much as 90 percent of the vote, according to a survey last month by Baku-based NGO Partnership Alliance and the U.K.’s European Center for Survey Research. The Azeri leader succeeded his late father in 2003 and was re- elected five years ago, gaining 77 percent and 87 percent of the vote in the two elections, respectively. Neither contests were deemed free or fair by U.S. and European observers.
“The result is not in doubt,” Thomas de Waal, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in a research note Oct. 7.
Aliyev’s main challenger is Camil Hasanli, 61, a history professor at Baku State University, whose books on U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War have been taught in western universities. Hasanli is the first consensus candidate to challenge Aliyev, put forward by opposition groups united under the National Council of Democratic Forces. The alliance’s initial choice, Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibrahimbayov, was disqualified for having Russian citizenship.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time and initial results are due by midnight, according to the Central Electoral Commission in the capital, Baku. Voter turnout was 58 percent at 3 p.m., Rufat Gulmammadov, the regulator’s spokesman, told reporters.
Hasanli’s campaign headquarters alleged the authorities have allowed widespread fraud, including ballot stuffing and multiple voting, a practice known as a “carousel,” according to a statement on its Facebook page.
About 5 million of the country’s 9.4 million people are eligible to vote, the Central Electoral Commission said on its website. Thousands of local and international observers from groups including the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are monitoring the vote.
BP Plc and its partners have invested more than $40 billion in Caspian Sea energy projects in Azerbaijan since 1994 and plan to invest another $25 billion by the end of the decade to develop the Shah Deniz gas field to supply Europe via the Southern Gas Corridor, which bypasses Russia.
Buoyed by western energy investments, Aliyev has more than tripled the size of the economy in the past decade as oil and gas output surged. That fueled a sixfold jump in the average wage to 403 manat ($517) a month and slashed the official poverty rate to less than 6 percent of the population from almost half, according to the government’s statistics office.
Aliyev said during a televised cabinet meeting Oct. 7 that he’s created more than 1 million new jobs through “massive” investment programs since taking power.
Still, Azerbaijan is ranked among the world’s most corrupt and repressive governments by Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders. Dozens of activists, journalists, bloggers and other critics have been arrested or convicted of “bogus charges” during the past 18 months, Human Rights Watch said in a Sept. 2 report.
The European Union last week warned of “continued pressure” on activists, civil society and independent media that includes “intimidation, arrests on dubious charges, detentions, and sentencing without proper respect for international standards and rights of the accused,” according to a statement signed by Catherine Ashton, the 28-nation bloc’s foreign policy chief, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule.
The EU’s assessment was rejected by Elnur Aslanov, an aide to Aliyev and a member of the ruling party’s political council. Aslanov said in an Oct. 4 interview in Baku that EU officials were “maliciously” seeking to influence the election and that Aliyev’s government has done “everything to ensure that the election is held in a free, fair and transparent atmosphere.”
The U.S. government, which uses Azerbaijan as a transit corridor for non-military shipments to Afghanistan, said it hopes the election will be “a step” toward greater political freedom in the country.
“Both publicly and privately, we continuously urge greater respect for human rights, improved governance and transparency, and stronger anti-corruption efforts,” the U.S. embassy in Baku said in an e-mailed statement.
While Aliyev’s victory is all but assured, the opposition can take credit for finally overcoming their internal disagreements and uniting under a single banner, said Lawrence Sheets, South Caucasus project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“What has perhaps attracted the most attention is that most opposition groups, which have been notorious for their fragmentation and inability to overcome their personal differences, finally managed to agree to back a single candidate,” Sheets said by e-mail. “Even though President Aliyev’s aides speak about support levels of 70, 80, or 90 percent, the authorities still seem quite concerned about possible unrest.”
--Editors: Brad Cook, Paul Abelsky, Torrey Clark