Azerbaijan's Aliyev wins fourth term as president

BAKU (Reuters) - Ilham Aliyev won a fourth term as president of Azerbaijan on Wednesday in an election boycotted by major opposition parties, who accused him of authoritarian rule and suppressing political dissent.

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The former Soviet republic’s huge energy reserves and strategic location on the Caspian Sea make it an important alternative for Europe to Russian oil and gas.

“Ilham Aliyev is leading ... He got 86.09 percent of votes,” Mazahir Panahov, the Central Election Commission chairman told a news conference.

The partial results were based on the 65 percent of the ballots counted, he said.

“I am grateful to my people for voting for our achievements and success,” Aliyev said on state television, soon after the election commission announced the first results. “People voted for stability, security and development.”

The ruling New Azerbaijan Party claimed Aliyev’s victory two of hours after polls closed.

“Voters have made the right choice, and this choice is Ilham Aliyev,” said Ali Akhmedov, the party’s senior official.

“According to exit polls results, 80 to 85 percent of voters have voted for Aliyev, which means that Ilham Aliyev has won the election,” he said.

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.

The election commission said turnout was about 75 percent and there were no complaints about irregularities.

Aliyev, 56, and his supporters deny allegations of voter fraud and say dissent has not been suppressed.

Aliyev was first elected in October 2003, two months before the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, who ruled for 10 years. He 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.

Aliyev brought forward the date of the vote to April 11 from Oct. 17, a move his allies said was necessary to avoid presidential and parliamentary elections clashing in 2025.

Seven candidates ran, but critics questioned whether they were actual opponents. Monitors, including the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, were watching the vote.

The OSCE monitors will present their observations at a news conference on Thursday.

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 fueled by oil exports, but a slump in global crude prices in the last three years has weakened the Azeri currency and shrunk the economy.

Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Larry King