Azeri leader Aliyev to affirm rule in poll, critics say vote unfair

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev speaks during a news conference at the 2014 Tbilisi Summit May 6, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
By Nailia Bagirova
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By Nailia Bagirova BAKU (Reuters) - Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, helped by an oil-fueled economic boom, will maintain his tight hold on power with victory this weekend for his political party in polls opponents are boycotting and international rights groups say will not be fair. But Western governments balance their criticism over human rights with strategic considerations, courting Azerbaijan as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe. Azerbaijan is host to oil majors including BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron. Ilham Aliyev has consolidated power since succeeding his father and long-serving leader Heydar in 2003, overseeing a period when revenue from rising oil and gas exports has, officials say, brought better living standards for all. The image of Aliyev the elder is omnipresent, asserting the dynastic power base - his picture is seen in newspapers, his name attaches to institutes and streets. Statues adorn towns. Sunday's parliamentary vote is widely expected to see Aliyev's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party comfortably maintain its majority in parliament. Low world oil prices and an economic slowdown in neighboring Russia, where huge numbers of Azeris earn a living, do not appear to have hurt the party's prospects. "We got 71 (out of 125) seats at the previous election and we have every chance to repeat that victory this time," the party's executive secretary, Ali Akhmedov, said. Rights groups accuse the government of curbing freedoms and silencing dissent to prevent the rise of any political opposition, allegations the government denies. VIOLATIONS The mainstream opposition in Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country of about 9 million people, sandwiched between Iran, Russia and Turkey, has decided to boycott the poll. "The pre-election period was marred by massive violations. That's why we decided not to participate," opposition Musavat Party leader, Arif Gajily, told Reuters. Opposition complains at lack of free access to air time and restrictions on campaigning. Several rights activists and journalists have been sentenced to prison this year. They include Leyla Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist from the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, known for exposing corruption among the country's ruling elite. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would not monitor the election because restrictions imposed by authorities have rendered credible poll monitoring impossible. A number of foreign journalists, including some from Reuters, were not issued with the accreditation required to cover the election. The foreign ministry cited technical difficulties. "Under these circumstances, it is impossible to hold any meaningful debate about the election or to ensure its accountability," said Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks. (Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze)