BAKU (Reuters) - Ilham Aliyev won a third term as president of the oil-producing ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan on Wednesday in an election the opposition said was marred by voting violations.
Aliyev’s control over most levers of power and media outlets made his victory a foregone conclusion for many in the nation of 9 million, even though the fractious opposition united for the first time in a presidential poll behind a single candidate.
Election officials said a partial count gave Aliyev nearly 85 percent of the vote with almost 80 percent of ballots counted in country he has dominated since he succeeded his long-ruling father Heydar a decade ago, presiding over an oil-fuelled economic boom but tolerating little dissent.
Dozens of cars honking and carrying the flags of Azerbaijan and Aliyev’s ruling party cruised down Oilman Avenue, a central Baku thoroughfare whose high-priced boutiques have come to symbolize the massive oil revenues enjoyed by the Azeri elite.
“I am grateful to the Azeri people for voting for me and putting their trust in me and the future development of the country,” said Aliyev, speaking on state television.
The president has faced criticism at home and abroad over the government’s treatment of its critics, as protests are quickly quashed and one rights group said a pre-election crackdown had doubled the number of political prisoners.
A gaping divide between the rich and poor and allegations of corruption which Azeris say pervades many aspects of life has galvanized domestic opposition.
Aliyev opened the path to a third five-year term by backing a 2009 referendum that scrapped presidential term limits. He won the presidency in 2003 and 2008 in votes international observers said fell short of democratic standards.
At the ruling New Azerbaijan Party headquarters, supporters gathered near a screen repeatedly showing Aliyev, 51, casting his ballot.
“We voted for our president because there cannot be any other president in Azerbaijan besides Ilham Aliyev,” said leather-clad biker Ilham Ibragimov, waving party flags.
The election commission said opposition candidate Jamil Hasanly, a 61-year-old historian, received 5 percent of the vote. There were eight other candidates.
Hasanly, a former lawmaker and adviser to the late Abulfaz Elchibey, who was president for about a year in 1992-1993 but was driven from power shortly before Heydar Aliyev’s election, said there was evidence of violations including ballot stuffing.
“Authorities stole our votes the way they are stealing everything else in this country,” he said in an interview with Radio Liberty’s Azeri service.
A video published by the BBC’s Azeri service showed one man stuffing several voting papers into a ballot box. The election commission said no electoral violations had been reported.
Azerbaijan’s oil boom, the product of a BP-led consortium that exports Caspian Sea oil to ships in the Mediterranean Sea, raised living standards and boosted the mainly Muslim country’s clout to court Western powers.
Azerbaijan has also boosted its arms budget and the amount of money it spends on defense is higher than the GDP of its regional rival Armenia, with whom tensions are still simmering after a territorial dispute that caused a war in the 1990s.
But the average monthly salary is 500 manats ($600), and few Azeris can afford the boutiques and five-star hotels in Baku.
“I want changes in our country. This government led by Ilham Aliyev has been ruling Azerbaijan for a long time,” said Anchar Gasanly, 19, a student.
The number of demonstrations has increased in recent years, triggered in part by young people using social media, some taking inspiration from the Arab Spring uprisings.
“We will fight to the end for our votes,” Hasanly said.
But while Hasanly’s coalition plans to hold a rally on Saturday, few expect sustained protests after the vote.
Rights groups say Azerbaijan’s strategic location between Russia and Iran, its oil reserves, Europe-bound energy pipelines and its role as a transit route for U.S. troops to reach Afghanistan have cushioned it from Western criticism.
Aliyev has dismissed accusations of human rights abuses and says Azeris enjoy full democratic freedoms.
He boasts that per capita GDP increased to $7,850 in 2012 from $850 in 2003, but economic growth has slowed since his first term and the distribution of wealth is uneven.
But some saw the election as a vote for stability.
“He has already proved since 2003 that he can lead the country ... But let’s see a fourth term, a fifth term - I don’t see any alternative to him in the next 10-15 years,” said Ali Takhmazov, a 66-year-old businessman and former politician.
Additional reporting by Lada Evgrashina, Afet Mehdiyeva and Nailia Bagirova, Writing by Thomas Grove, Editing by Steve Gutterman and Alison Williams