BAKU -- Azerbaijan's authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, appears to have secured a landslide victory in a snap presidential election that was boycotted by the main opposition parties, according to exit polls.
Exit polls suggested Aliyev, who ran for the ruling New Azerbaijan party, will secure a fourth consecutive term in office with over 80 percent of the vote in the April 11 election, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) said did not provide "a viable choice" for the voters.
Aliyev received 82.7 percent of the vote, a government-commissioned exit poll conducted by Azerbaijani pollster Els Independent Research Center showed, which would give Aliyev a new seven-year term in office.
The private French pollster, Opinion Way, said he garnered 86.5 percent of the vote.
The Caucasus nation’s main opposition parties did not participate in the polls and had called for a boycott, claiming that the vote would be rigged.
Voting ended at 7 pm local time, with the Central Election Commission (CEC) putting turnout at just under 70 percent. Preliminary results are expected within hours.
Natiq Mammadov, the deputy head of the CEC, rejected numerous allegations of voting fraud committed by poll workers, telling the Turan news agency that all reports of violations were “lies.”
But the CEC’s own "online observation" cameras captured footage of poll workers in the town of Kurdamir appearing to clumsily switch a ballot box with another that appeared to contain about twice as many votes.
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 ran 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.
WATCH: Opponents Sing Incumbent's Praises In Azerbaijani Election
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 was 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 came 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.