Azerbaijan strongman set to win poll boycotted by opposition

Azerbaijan strongman Aliyev holding firmly on to power

Azerbaijan strongman Aliyev holding firmly on to power

Polls opened in Azerbaijan Wednesday morning in a snap election set to see President Ilham Aliyev re-elected for a seven-year term.

Aliyev has been in power since 2003, following the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB agent who became increasingly authoritarian over his own decade in power.

Aliyev's supporters said he brought today's election, on April 11, forward from October 17 in order to avoid presidential and parliamentary elections clashing in 2025.

In addition to Aliyev, of the New Azerbaijan Party; Araz Alizade, of the Social Democratic Party; Gudrat Gasanguliev, of the United Popular Front Party; Faraj Guliev, of the National Revival Movement Party; Hafiz Hajiyev, of "Modern Musavat Party", and Sardar Mamedov, of the Democratic Party, are running for the presidency.

The presidential election originally was scheduled for the fall.

In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted fresh controversial constitutional amendments, extending the president's term in office to seven years from five.

"The climax of the tragicomedy was that some of the candidates called on people to vote for Aliyev", independent analyst, Bahtiyar Hajiev, told AFP.

The changes drew criticism from Council of Europe constitutional law experts as "severely upsetting the balance of powers" and giving the president "unprecedented" authority.

Instead of any real competition, Aliyev ran against seven low-profile figures who made no serious attempts at campaigning.

Opposition leaders say these "dummy candidates" were hand-picked by the authorities so the vote looks competitive.

In February 2017, Aliyev appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as first vice president - a post also created by the referendum - placing her first in line to take over if the president dies or is incapacitated.

The former Soviet republic's huge energy reserves and strategic location on the Caspian Sea make it an important alternative for Europe to Russian oil and gas.

But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to fund a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.

Aliyev has denied accusations of rights abuses and corruption.

The country has about 5.3 million people out of a total population of 9.9 million registered voters.

Seven other candidates were running in Wednesday's election, which will have global monitors including the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), but critics questioned whether the other candidates were genuine.

The Central Election Commission was to begin announcing official results later Wednesday.

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