Azeri president's supporters heckle as observers declare election unfair

BAKU (Reuters) - Supporters of Azerbaijan’s president forced election monitors to halt a news conference on Thursday where they were announcing they had found the election that gave Ilham Aliyev a fourth term undemocratic.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Ilham Aliyev, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2018 REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo/File Photo

Members of Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party and pro-government journalists banged on the table where observers from the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) were trying to speak, and shouted that their report was biased.

The news conference on the credibility of Aliyev’s landslide re-election was suspended and resumed later.

The OSCE said Wednesday’s vote had taken place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.”

Viorel Riceard Badea, head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said: “We have to consider that, in a political environment where democratic principles are compromised and the rule of law is not observed, fair and free elections are not possible.”

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry called the OSCE report “unfair and not objective,” adding that it had complained directly to the monitors.

Aliyev’s foreign policy aide, Novruz Mamedov, said on Facebook: “Circulation of a report that has been prepared in advance ... is a disrespect to voters, people, their will and choice.”

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Aliyev, 56, won with more than 86 percent of the vote at an election boycotted by opposition parties which accuse him of authoritarian rule and suppressing political dissent, something he denies.

First elected in October 2003, two months before the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, who ruled for 10 years, Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 - all votes that international observers said fell short of democratic standards.

Aliyev has cemented his position with two referendums, one in 2009 that scrapped a two-term presidential limit and another in 2016 that extended the presidential term to seven years from five. He appointed his wife Mehriban first vice president, the second most powerful post after the president, in 2017.

Monitors reported “widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing,” in Wednesday’s election, adding: “in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine freedom.”

Opposition parties called the vote a “show”.

“We don’t recognise the election results and call for a transparent election,” Arif Gajily, head of the Musavat Party, told a news conference.

Seven candidates ran, but critics questioned whether they were actual opponents. Two of them voted for Aliyev, news website reported.

The election commission said it had received no complaints about irregularities.

At the news conference, Aliyev’s supporters shouted: “Your report was prepared in advance to please Armenians”, referring to a long-standing conflict with neighbouring Armenia over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Aliyev has tried to strike a balance between Azerbaijan’s former Soviet master Russia and the West, notably on energy policy. He has benefited from a boom fuelled by oil exports, but a slump in global crude prices in the last three years has weakened the Azeri currency and shrunk the economy.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy