Azeri Exit Polls Point to Huge Victory for Aliyev

APAzeri President Ilham Aliyev walking to the ballot box with his vote in hand at a polling station in Baku on Wednesday.
BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azeri exit polls pointed to victory for incumbent Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday in a presidential election condemned by the opposition as a charade to extend the Aliyev family dynasty.

The main opposition leaders boycotted the poll but figures released by the state electoral commission put turnout high, at 65 percent by 5 p.m. Polls closed two hours later, to the sound of the national anthem.

Three exit polls conducted by groupings of Azeri nongovernmental organizations each gave Aliyev more than 80 percent, and put turnout at 68 percent to 73 percent.

The ruling New Azerbaijan Party prepared to celebrate. A stage and giant screens were erected in the park outside its headquarters.

"What's the point in voting when the result is known in advance?" asked passer-by Gasan Mamedov, 48.

Most opposition leaders were boycotting, complaining that curbs on democracy and media freedom made participation pointless. Rights groups backed their complaints and pointed to a personality cult around Ilham's late father, long-serving leader Heidar Aliyev, which they said makes dissent dangerous.

Who Is Ilham Aliyev?

  • The moustachioed 46-year-old Ilham Aliyev first won election in 2003, as the handpicked successor to his then ailing father, Heidar. Ilham won 76 percent of the vote. The opposition cried foul, but police put down protests and hundreds of opposition supporters were jailed.
  • Fluent in English, Russian, French and Azeri, Ilham has a master's degree in history and international relations from the Moscow State University of International Relations. He was known for his fondness for gambling, prompting Heidar to shut down all casinos in Azerbaijan.
  • A personality cult built around Heidar continues in Azerbaijan, five years after his death. But Ilham is reported to have ordered all portraits and pictures of himself removed during the 2008 election campaign.
  • As president, Ilham is surrounded by close allies of his late father. Some observers question their loyalty to Heidar's son and say they have stifled whatever tendencies Ilham may have had to reform the country.
  • He is married with two daughters and a son. Some analysts speculate that his wife, Mehriban, is a potential successor after Ilham's expected second term, his last under the constitution.
-- Reuters
"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 the poverty of rural areas.

"Look how our country is flourishing," she said. "He is the only one who helps and thinks about the people."

A win for the 46-year-old leader would give him a second five-year term, his last under the constitution. Dressed in a dark gray suit and accompanied by his wife, he paused for photographers while voting but said nothing to reporters.

In 2003, Aliyev succeeded his father, a former local KGB chief who went on to rule Azerbaijan for more than 30 years as a Soviet-era Communist Party boss and then as president.

With his father's portrait still displayed prominently throughout the country, Aliyev won over 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, which had almost 400 monitors in the field. The opposition Musavat Party has already filed for permission to protest Saturday.

"We live under a monarchy," said opposition supporter Rafik Guliyev, 35. "We want change and to live in a normal society."

The country 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. Analysts said a smooth election day, despite a flawed campaign, could be enough to win a more favorable report card from the West. Official results were expected early Thursday.