October 12, 2013

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Thousands gathered in the capital of Azerbaijan on Saturday to protest the re-election of President Ilham Aliyev in a vote widely criticized by international election monitors.

The protesters in Baku demanded that the election be nullified and that Aliyev resign. Aliyev succeeded his father to the presidency of this small oil-rich nation in 2003, extending decades of dynastic rule.

Leading the march was Jamil Hasanli, the historian who ran as the main opposition candidate but snagged less than 6 percent of the vote to Aliyev’s 85 percent. Police estimated that there were 1,500 at the rally, whereas the opposition put the number between 8,000 and 10,000. The protest was significantly smaller than in previous presidential elections in 2003 and 2008, when at least three to four times as many people gathered to contest the results.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the Wednesday vote flawed. The day before, the Central Election Commission released the results of the vote on a smartphone app, showing Aliyev comfortably in the lead.

“This government must go and it will go,” said Hasanli. He criticized Azerbaijani election officials, saying “they will all receive their punishment.” Booming oil prices and a growing economy have allowed Aliyev to cement his control over the country, particularly after the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union, when Azerbaijan plunged into war with neighboring Armenia.

Years of relentless government crackdowns and bitter infighting has also weakened the opposition, which found it hard to mount a challenge to Aliyev in the latest vote. Hasanli was forwarded as a candidate at the last minute after the opposition’s first choice was unable to register because he had Russian citizenship, and many observers said his campaign was poorly planned and lacked energy.