BAKU (Reuters) - Loyalists of President Ilham Aliyev swept the board in a parliamentary election in oil-producing Azerbaijan, giving him an even tighter grip on power in the ex-Soviet republic.
The leading opposition party, Musavat, failed to win a single seat in the assembly, and criticised the vote on Monday as “illegitimate” and a challenge to the Western democracies.
With almost all the votes counted, Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party had increased its share in the 125-seat parliament to over 70 seats from 64 previously, and a host of small parties and “independents” loyal to the government took almost all the rest.
A single candidate from the “Hope” party appeared to be the only genuine opposition deputy in parliament.
Sunday’s victory further consolidates Aliyev’s grip on the country, cushioned against calls for reform by its strategic importance to the West as an oil and gas exporter and transit route for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
The mainly Muslim country of 9 million people is an ally of the United States in a volatile region bordering Iran, Turkey and Russia at the threshold of Central Asia.
A Western diplomat who observed voting described the election as “an absolute sham” marred by “egregious irregularities” including ballot stuffing and intimidation of public sector workers.
“The Popular Front-Musavat bloc regard this election as illegitimate and undemocratic,” Musavat leader Isa Gambar told a news conference on Monday. “The new parliament is illegitimate and we demand new elections,” he said. Musavat had four seats in the outgoing assembly.
Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli said: “It’s a challenge to the democratic Western community.”
He compared the Azeri political scene to the “medieval period,” with a personality cult built around Aliyev’s father and long-serving leader Heydar in the seven years since his death.
The ruling party said the vote was “free and fair” and the Central Election Commission said “no serious violations were registered that could affect the result.”
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were due to issue their assessment on Monday.
The opposition has often accused the West of muting its criticism for fear of losing out to Russia in the battle for Azerbaijan’s oil and gas in the Caspian Sea, key to Europe’s hopes of reducing its energy dependence on Moscow.
Aliyev has steadily tightened his control over Azerbaijan since succeeding his father in 2003.
His rule has coincided with an oil-fuelled economic boom, spawning rapid construction in the capital Baku and the emergence of an opulent jet set. Critics say the Baku facelift masks a widening gap between rich and poor, and a steady shrinking of democratic freedoms.
Official turnout was just over 50 percent.
Additional reporting by Afet Mehtiyeva in Baku, Matt Robinson and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi. Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Tim Pearce