President Aliyev widely expected to win another term after takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway enclave.
Voters in Azerbaijan are casting their ballots in an election widely expected to give President Ilham Aliyev another seven-year term after a military offensive last year brought the Armenian separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh under his government’s control.
A fifth term for Aliyev is seen as a forgone conclusion in Wednesday’s vote also because of a crackdown on independent media and the absence of any real opposition.
Azeri forces launched a blitz in September that forced separatists, who had been controlling the territory for more than three decades, to disarm. Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians were forced to flee to neighbouring Armenia.
Keen to capitalise on that victory, Aliyev announced a snap election for February that was originally scheduled for 2025. He said he wanted the poll to “mark the beginning of a new era”, in which Azerbaijan has full control over its territory.
“I will vote for the victorious leader Ilham Aliyev,” Sevda Mirzoyeva, a 52-year-old resident from the capital Baku, told The Associated Press news agency before polling stations opened.
The president ordered the lightning offensive last year after a nine-month blockade to regain full control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
In announcing the election in January, Aliyev said that polls would be held for the first time in the Karabakh region after the exodus of ethnic Armenians.
Aliyev, 62, was first elected president in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer who had ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.
He was re-elected in 2008, 2013 and most recently in 2018 with 86 percent of the votes. All the elections were denounced by opposition parties as rigged.
In 2009, Aliyev amended the constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, a move criticised by rights advocates who say he could become president for life.
His time in power has been marked by the introduction of increasingly strict laws that curb political debate as well as arrests of opposition figures and independent journalists, including in the run-up to the election.
Aliyev faces no real challenge from the six other candidates, some of whom have publicly praised him.
Azerbaijan’s two main opposition parties – Musavat and the Popular Front party – are not taking part in the vote.
Musavat leader Arif Hajili told the AP that the party would not be participating in the elections because they are not democratic.
“Many journalists and political activists are in jail. There are more than 200 political prisoners. There are serious issues with election law and the election commissions are basically under the authorities’ influence,” Hajili said.
Ali Kerimli, leader of the Popular Front party, has said that calling for an early election without public debate shows that the authorities are afraid of political competition.
In theory, there can be two rounds of voting if a candidate fails to secure more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, but Aliyev is widely expected to be re-elected in a landslide, as he has been in previous elections.
Around six million voters are registered for the election monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).