According to exit polls in Azerbaijan, the ruling party of president Ilham Aliyev has been returned to power with a reduced majority. Aliyev took over on the death of his father in 2003, in elections that were widely regarded as being rigged, but he had promised that yesterday’s parliamentary election would be free and fair.

Earlier reports said that the country’s Central Election Commission had agreed to cancel results in 20 of the 125 constituencies following opposition complaints of fraud. A number of opposition leaders were detained during the campaign, and there are the usual claims of “boxes being stuffed with pro-government ballot papers, multiple voting and intimidation of opposition supporters.”

Azerbaijan is faced with the usual dilemma of authoritarian governments under threat: not wanting to liberalise too much (for fear of losing
power) or too little (for fear of provoking an explosion). Two years ago, neighbouring Georgia transferred power to democratic forces in a bloodless revolution; last year the same happened in Ukraine. President Aliyev clearly does not want to go the same way.

But as the BBC reports, a lack of democracy plays into the hands of radical Islamic movements. Rich in oil and gas, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, at the crossroads of western, Russian and Iranian influences, and a descent into violence there would be a new and unwelcome source of instability in the middle east.

At this stage it seems most likely that the opposition will accept its modest gains as a pledge that the country is at least moving in the right direction. Exit polls in authoritarian states, however, are unreliable at the best of times, so it may be that there are still some surprises to come.