BAKU – Voters in Azerbaijan are heading to the polls for a snap presidential election boycotted by the main opposition parties and widely expected to give authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev a fourth consecutive term.
Aliyev, who is running for the ruling New Azerbaijan party, appeared set to win a new seven-year term in office with a landslide majority in the April 11 election, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) said does not provide “a viable choice” for the voters.
The Caucasus nation’s main opposition parties are not participating in the polls and have called for a boycott, claiming that the vote will be rigged.
Election authorities reported a high turnout, saying 60.7 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 3 p.m. local time, seven hours after polls opened.
Azerbaijan's opposition, as well as Western governments and international human rights groups, have criticized Aliyev's government for persistently persecuting independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists.
The 56-year-old Aliyev has ruled the South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his father's death in 2003.
On February 5, Aliyev announced he was bringing forward the date of the vote to April 11 from October 17, a move his government said was necessary to avoid presidential and parliamentary elections clashing in 2025.
The move came after Azerbaijan's Electoral Code was amended in December to allow snap presidential elections provided they are announced at least 60 days in advance.
Seven other candidates are running in the election, but Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at HRW, called the election result “a forgone conclusion,” saying Aliyev’s opponents “don’t offer a viable choice for the voters.”
“The vote itself will likely be well-administered, and video cameras at the polling stations are supposed to provide transparency against rigging,” Gogia said in an e-mail to RFE/RL.
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For years, he added, Azerbaijani authorities “have been working overtime to silence the political opposition, media, and civil society,” sending dozens of journalists, bloggers, and other government critics to prison.
“So, while there’s no doubt who will be elected, Azerbaijan’s international partners should not just congratulate the Azerbaijani president but use the opportunity to insist on immediate release of all those unjustly imprisoned,” Gogia said.
The election is being observed by international monitors, including the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
In a March 29 report, the office quoted “many ODIHR Election Observation Mission (EOM) interlocutors” as saying that “they do not expect the election to be genuinely competitive.”
The election comes amid worsening economic conditions in the country, prompting antigovernment protests.
There has been a steep drop in the value of the national currency, the manat, against the U.S. dollar. Falling oil revenues, which make up the vast majority of Azerbaijan's exports, have also rocked the economy amid a decline in global oil prices.
Citizens have been hard-hit by rising inflation, unemployment, and the cost of staple goods.