Baku (AFP) – Azerbaijanis voted on Wednesday in a snap presidential election boycotted by the main opposition parties and set to extend the autocratic rule of President Ilham Aliyev.
An Aliyev victory is widely seen as a foregone conclusion with the Caspian state’s downtrodden opposition unable to mount a serious challenge to his authoritarian rule.
His position has also been boosted by the steady influx of petrodollars into his government’s coffers.
“All the necessary conditions have been created to conduct democratic and transparent elections,” the Central Election Commssion chief, Mazahir Panakhov, said in a televised statement.
But opposition parties in the tightly-controlled Caucasus nation have said the elections are a sham and accused the authorities of preparing to rig the vote.
At a polling station in the capital Baku, 38-year-old schoolteacher Elmira Balayeva said she had voted for Aliyev because he was the only candidate capable of steering the country towards economic wellbeing and political stability.
“There is no alternative to Aliyev. Only thanks to him is Azerbaijan a stable country with a strong economy,” she said after casting her ballot.
But for Natig Veliyev, a 27-year-old student who has refused to go to the polls, “the elections are pure farce.”
“We have never seen free elections in this country. Aliyev simply extends his reign again and again.”
Opposition activists have condemned Aliyev’s surprise — and unexplained — decision to hold the election six months ahead of schedule. They say it was aimed at shortening the campaign period and hampering the opposition’s efforts to prevent vote-rigging.
“All previous elections in Azerbaijan were falsified and held with blatant violations of the electoral law. These elections will be no exception,” said the executive secretary of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement, Natig Jafarli.
The authorities rejected the opposition’s criticism, insisting the vote will be free and fair.
Turnout was 39.4 percent at 0800 GMT, four hours after polls opened, the head of the Central Election Commission said.
– ‘Unprecedented’ powers –
Poised to secure a fourth consecutive term, Aliyev, 56, was first elected in 2003, after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev.
A former KGB officer and communist-era leader, Aliyev senior had ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.
Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as fraudulent.
In 2009, he amended the country’s constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in a move criticised by rights advocates.
In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted fresh controversial constitutional amendments, extending the president’s term in office to seven years from five.
The changes drew criticism from Council of Europe constitutional law experts as “severely upsetting the balance of powers” and giving the president “unprecedented” authority.
Cementing his family’s decades-long grip on power, the president last year appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president.
Apart from the incumbent president, seven candidates are running in the poll — all low-profile figures who have barely carried out any campaigning.
“The climax of the tragicomedy was that some of the candidates called on people to vote for Aliyev,” independent analyst Bahtiyar Hajiev told AFP.
Opposition leaders say these “dummy candidates” were hand-picked by the authorities to try to make the vote look competitive.
– ‘Hidden wealth’ –
Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as an ex-Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe.
But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to fund a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.
“For decades, the Aliyevs have been appropriating Azerbaijan’s national riches, they have amassed immense hidden wealth,” Khadija Ismayilova, an anti-corruption campaigner, told AFP.
“They cling on to power to continue looting the country’s resources,” said the award-winning journalist, who spent 17 months in jail in 2014-2016 after she exposed official graft.
Aliyev has denied accusations of rights abuses and corruption.
Monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the polls were due to close at 1500 GMT.
Some 5.2 million people are registered to vote.
The Central Election Commission was to begin releasing results late Wednesday, following government-commissioned exit polls shortly after the vote closes.