Preliminary results from Azerbaijan's October 9 election show that incumbent Ilham Aliyev has been returned to the presidency for a third term. His share of the vote appears only slightly reduced compared with the last victory, despite the decision of the main opposition parties to unite behind a single candidate.
The universally expected victory for Aliyev means business as usual in Azerbaijan, the Caucasus' main oil and gas producer. Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly important as a supplier to European markets, with gas from the second phase of the giant offshore Shah Deniz field to be sent direct to European consumers through new pipelines from 2019.
Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced early on October 10 that Aliyev had taken 84.73% of votes counted, with the turnout at 72.31%. That's a wider margin of victory than exit polls had forecast. A survey carried out by the NGO Cooperation Alliance gave Aliyev a majority of 83.89%, according to Azernews. However, it is slightly down on the 87% he took in the last presidential race in 2008.
Still, the united opposition hardly made a dent. According to the preliminary results, Jamil Hasanli, the candidate for the National Coalition of Democratic Forces, managed to attract just 5.2% of the vote. The coalition's original candidate, Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, was barred by CEC after failing to meet residence rules, as he also holds a Russian passport. The other nine candidates all failed to make it past 3%.
In a pre-recorded television address, Aliyev said the result was a "triumph for democracy", according to the BBC. "Azerbaijan will continue successfully to develop as a democratic country. The fact that this election was free and transparent is another serious step towards democracy," the returning president claimed. However, opposition leaders insist the vote was rigged. Hasanli said on October 9 that his campaigners had observed several instances of ballot stuffing.
There was no expectation of an opposition victory, and that pessimism appeared confirmed thanks to the launch of a mobile app allowing users to follow the election process. The high tech nod to transparency released results showing a landslide for Aliyev - the day before the polls opened. The data was quickly removed, but not before reporters at opposition television channel Meydan TV had posted a screenshot of the premature "result". CEC later blamed the incident on a "technical glitch" that it "deeply regrets".
A report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) on the conduct of the election is expected later on October 10. The OSCE's pre-election report issued on October 1 described a "generally calm" campaign atmosphere, that "lacked substantive debate and has focused on personality rather than concrete political platforms".
International observers have also voiced concerns about the series of arrests of opposition activists and independent journalists in the weeks before the election. While mass protests are unlikely, there is still the possibility of unrest in Azerbaijan if the election is not seen as free and fair.
Along with Azerbaijan's increased prosperity in recent years, the country's opposition activists have become more willing to take to the streets - a change partly attributed to the example of the Arab Spring in several nearby Middle Eastern and North African countries. Since early 2011, there have been more demonstrations, though most have been small, numbering just tens of participants, and swiftly shut down by police.
Aliyev first came to power in 2003, following the death of his father, former president Haidar Aliyev, and was re-elected in 2008. His time in office has seen a period of fast economic growth, driven by Azerbaijan's oil and gas sector. Over the last decade, GDP per capita has risen almost ten-times - from $850 to $7,850 - while poverty has fallen.
Despite the progress however, concern lingers over corruption and income inequality. Baku has also been working to offset a decline in production at the country's main oilfield Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli by diversifying the economy and supporting sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and IT.
European governments are looking to Azerbaijan as an alternative energy source as they seek to reduce reliance on Russia. The opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline back in 2006 allowed Azerbaijan to transport oil directly to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, bypassing Russian territory for the first time.
New gas pipeline infrastructure is in the works. In July, the consortium developing the offshore Shah Deniz field selected the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline consortium to transport gas from the field from the Turkish border to Central Europe, picking it over the more ambitious EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project. From 2019, Turkey will receive 6bn cubic metres (cm) of gas from the field each year, with 10bn cm going to European customers. Azerbaijan is also seen as a potential transit state to bring oil and gas from Central Asia to European markets.
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