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Ilham Election Ends in Violence

Mass protest and street clashes cast shadow over Ilham Aliev's election.
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The presidency of Ilham Aliev has got off to an ominous start this week with violent clashes on the streets of Baku, as the opposition disputed his declaration of victory.


International observers condemned the October 16 violence, which left two people dead and 300 wounded, but were also critical of the authorities, calling the election undemocratic - stopping short, though, of challenging the result, which gave Ilham Aliev, son of former president Heidar Aliev, 80 per cent of the vote. His main challenger Isa Gambar was awarded 12 per cent of the vote.


Supporters of Gambar's Musavat party marched on Baku's Freedom Square to challenge the electoral result, claiming their candidate had won the election. The opposition protesters were brutally attacked by police trying to clear the square and the violence then spread throughout the city centre with casualties on both sides.


So far, only one of the victims has been identified, Gamidaga Zahidov, a 51-year-old man from the town of Saatli, who died when he was beaten on the head in Freedom Square.


The trouble started on October 15, after the polls had closed. When Musavat supporters saw the first results announced on television, around 200 of them staged a demonstration outside their party headquarters. Their rally was broken up shortly after midnight.


The next day, they re-assembled on Freedom Square in the early afternoon and almost five hours of violence ensued. More than 20 journalists caught in the melee were injured.


It seems likely the number of casualties will grow. A doctor at the Nagiev Hospital said they had received more than 50 people and no one had so far died. However, she said there were 12 people in intensive care of whom three, including a five-year-old child, were in a critical condition.


The doctor said the child, who was with her mother near the clashes and had got caught up in them, had "little chance of surviving."


Baku police chief Magerram Aliev told reporters 171 people had been detained, including two of Gambar's bodyguards, and that 30 police officers had been hurt.


Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the governing party Yeni Azerbaijan, confirmed to IWPR that two people had died but said this was a result of stones thrown by opposition supporters and blamed Musavat for the trouble.


"Musavat is a centre of destabilisation and the functioning of this centre is very dangerous for Azerbaijan," he said. "The law enforcement agencies must be extremely decisive about this."


These elections have been unlike any others in Azerbaijan.


First of all, the electoral campaign was highly unusual as President Heidar Aliev, the political colossus of the country, was absent.


He was in hospital in the United States throughout and only withdrew from the contest in favour of his son Ilham 12 days before polling day. As a result of this confusion in the ruling elite, Gambar, the leading opposition candidate, was able to make a very powerful challenge.


Secondly, elections in Azerbaijan have never ended in violence, as this one did.


And thirdly, everyone noted an unusually high level of interest from voters. The official turnout figures were put at 71 per cent.


As expected, there were many reports of vote-rigging and falsification. At the polling station in School 101 in Sukharan, on the edge of Baku, a middle-aged woman with a piercing voice shouted out, "We are all putting our cross against the first name! And anyone who likes to blab to their neighbours is free to go and say that I told you that!" The first name on the ballot form was that of Ilham.


It transpired that this woman, called Tamilla, comes from the nearby Oil Machine-Building Factory, which supports most of the district, including the school. So it was not surprising that everyone was afraid of her.


In Azerbaijan's second city Ganje, IWPR heard that many government employees were put under intense pressure to vote for Ilham. Nushaba Mamedova, head of the woman's rights organisation Tomris, said she had personally witnessed schoolteachers being given 20 ballot forms, with Aliev's name already crossed on them.


"What's more, the famous Ganje singer Shahnaz Ashimova hired a bus to take one group of Ilham supporters around different polling stations," Mamedova said. "Every time they were given new ballot papers and they all voted several times."


The pro-government press and some international observers also said they had witnessed acts of agitation and intimidation by the opposition on polling day.


For the first time, exit polls were conducted in Azerbaijan. However, they did not throw any light on the actual result. A poll conducted by the ADAM social research centre and the opposition Turan news agency reported that by early evening on election day, 46.2 per cent of electors had voted for Gambar and 24.1 per cent for Ilham.


However, another sociological centre, Prognoz, reported that Ilham had 62.78 per cent support and Gambar 14.65 per cent.


Well-known liberal commentator Zardusht Alizade, one of the organisers of the group Everyone for Fair Elections, which is supported by the Open Society Institute, said he believed that Ilham had won the election in the first round, but by much less than was officially announced.


"In my judgement Ilham Aliev got more than 50 per cent of the vote, Isa Gambar around 40 per cent and the rest no more than 10 per cent," said Alizade. "However, that does not mean that Ilham Aliev won these elections honestly and fairly.


"The whole election campaign was accompanied by massive abuses, all the television channels were agitating for just one candidate and insulting the opposition, government employees were threatened that they would lose their jobs if they did not vote for Ilham. So the authorities used their so-called 'administrative resources' to the maximum, as happens in all elections in the territory of the CIS."


International observers expressed great disappointment in the elections, but did not dispute the validity of the result.


"This election has been a missed opportunity for a genuinely democratic election process," said Peter Eicher head of the observing team for ODIHR, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. "We were particularly troubled by the level of intimidation and unequal conditions for candidates during the campaign."


Guillermo Martines Casan, head of a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, tried to sound a more positive note, saying he hoped that the election would "mark the beginning of a new era in Azerbaijan". He appealed to all political forces "to adhere to legality and democratic standards when defending their legitimate, different political ideas".


Azerbaijan's new president stayed out of sight as the trouble developed on October 16, receiving congratulations from foreign heads of state and chairing a session of Azerbaijan's security council.


At the time this report was published on October 17, the streets of central Baku were quiet.


Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Azerbaijan coordinator.


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