Azerbaijanis are voting Wednesday in an election almost certain to give incumbent President Ilham Aliyev another seven-year term, following his government’s swift reclaiming of a region formerly controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists.
Aliyev, 62, has been in power for more than 20 years, succeeding his father who was Azerbaijan’s Communist boss and then president for a decade when it became independent after the 1991 Soviet collapse. The next presidential vote was set for next year, but Aliyev called an early election in December, shortly after Azerbaijani troops retook the Karabakh region from ethnic Armenian forces who controlled it for three decades.
Analysts suggested Aliyev moved the election forward to capitalize on his burst in popularity following the blitz in Karabakh. He will be in the limelight in November when Azerbaijan, a country which relies heavily on revenues from fossil fuels, hosts a U.N. climate change conference.
Aliyev’s 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 presidential election.
In January, Aliyev told local television channels that he wanted the election to “mark the beginning of a new era,” in which Azerbaijan has full control over its territory. He pointed out that polls would be held for the first time in the Karabakh region after the mass exodus of thousands of ethnic Armenians who fled following the Azerbaijani military offensive.
Speaking before the polls opened at 0400 GMT, 52-year-old Baku resident Sevda Mirzoyeva said she was going to be sure to vote in the election.
“I will vote for the victorious leader Ilham Aliyev,” Mirzoyeva told The Associated Press. Aliyev, she said, “returned our lands, which were occupied for many years. And he also accomplished a lot of things, including for young people.”
There is no limit on the number of terms Aliyev can serve, and there is no real challenge from six other candidates, some of which have previously publicly praised him.
Azerbaijan’s two main opposition parties — Musavat and the People’s Front of Azerbaijan — are not taking part in the vote, and some opposition members have alleged that Wednesday’s vote might be rigged.
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 Karimli, leader of People’s Front of Azerbaijan 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% of the vote in the first round, but Aliyev is widely expected to be reelected in a landslide, as he has been in previous elections.
The elections in Azerbaijan are being held shortly before those in Russia, in which President Vladimir Putin is all but certain to extend his 24-year rule. Analysts have previously speculated that Aliyev is trying to consolidate his own support and minimize possible Russian influence on the elections by holding them at a time when the Kremlin will be preoccupied with its own vote.
Russia, which has developed warm ties with Azerbaijan, is involved in a delicate balancing act as it also is a key ally and sponsor of Armenia, which took in more than 100,000 refugees from the Karabakh region after Azerbaijan retook control of it in September.
In November, Aliyev presided over a military parade in Khankendi, the capital of the region, telling spectators that “we showed the whole world the strength, determination and indomitable spirit of the Azerbaijani people.”
Khankendi, which Armenians called Stepanakert, served as the headquarters of the self-declared separatist government of the territory known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh. The region and sizable surrounding territory came under full control of ethnic Armenians in 1994 at the end of a separatist war.
Azerbaijan regained parts of it and most of the surrounding territory in 2020 after a six-week war, which ended with a Moscow-brokered truce envisaging the deployment of Russian peacekeepers tasked to ensure a transport corridor between Karabakh and Armenia.
However, Azerbaijan began blockading the road in December 2022, leading to severe food and medicine shortages in the Armenian-held area. Then in September, Azerbaijan launched a blitz that forced the separatist forces to lay down arms.
More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled the region in the following days, leaving the city and the region nearly deserted and under the full control of Azerbaijan.