BAKU (Reuters) - International monitors found widespread procedural violations in a vote count in Azerbaijan on Monday that they said raised doubt about the honesty of a snap parliamentary election, which partial results showed the ruling party easily winning.
President Ilham Aliyev, in power for 17 years after succeeding his father, had called Sunday’s election nine months before it was due, saying it was needed to consolidate his authority and speed economic reforms.
Partial results from Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission showed his Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party far in the lead, with nearly all other seats in the single-chamber parliament going to small parties and independents loyal to him.
Opposition parties called for a demonstration on Feb. 16 to protest against what they described as election fraud.
“The elections were marred by violations more than ever,” Ilgar Mamedov, leader of opposition REAL party, told Reuters
A mission of international observers representing the OSCE and Council of Europe said on Monday that “significant procedural violations during counting and the tabulation raised concerns (about) whether the results were established honestly.”
“While the authorities stated to the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) that there is a political will to organize elections in a free and fair atmosphere, many IEOM interlocutors have expressed serious concerns regarding respect of fundamental rights and freedoms,” they said in a statement.
Restrictive rules had prevented genuine competition, they said. Problems were found on election day in 7% of polling stations they had observed, “a statistically high figure which is indicative of serious procedural shortcomings.”
Some observers reported cases of ballot box stuffing.
In October, Aliyev dismissed his influential chief-of-staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and made other high-profile changes including the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister.
The president criticized the pace of economic reforms and said he wanted to clear out government officials who had reached pensionable age, a move seen as intended to force out people from the era of his father, Heydar Aliyev.
Despite large income from oil and gas exports, the country on the Caspian Sea struggles with unemployment, and many of the 10 million population see little benefit from its energy wealth.
A shake-up of the governing elite is not expected to bring any change in foreign policy. Azerbaijan is not aligned to any big regional grouping such as the European Union or the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, and its foreign policy is balanced between Russia, the West and Iran.
The Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993, when Heydar Aliyev, a veteran Soviet-era Communist boss, returned to power as president. His son succeeded him months before his death in 2003 and later won elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018.
Ilham Aliyev has held referendums that scrapped a two-term presidential limit and extended the presidential term to seven years from five. In 2017, he elevated his wife Mehriban to the post of first vice president.
Western nations have courted Azerbaijan because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe, but various European bodies and rights groups accuse Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, which Baku denies.
Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Peter Graff