Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev casts his ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (AP)
Voters in Azerbaijan went to the polls Sunday in parliamentary elections decried by the opposition as a sham vote that will strengthen President Ilham Aliyev's grip on power without bringing any real change.
Parliamentary elections had been scheduled for November this year, but Aliyev called early polls in December 2019 after a surprise self-dissolution of the legislature that is dominated by his ruling party.
The move followed a replacement of the prime minister and a number of veteran officials within the presidential administration and the government.
Critics say that Aliyev, 58, seeks to address growing public discontent over an economic slowdown and to improve his government's image by replacing discredited old elites with younger technocrats.
The opposition had accused the government of limiting their ability to campaign and several parties are boycotting the vote.
"I voted for an opposition candidate," taxi driver Ilgar Gasymov, 58, said at a polling station in the capital Baku.
"Only the opposition cares about ordinary people's problems."
Vafa Alekperova, a 43-year-old schoolteacher, said she voted for a ruling party candidate.
"I trust the party and my hopes for a better future are tied to it," she said.
Turnout was over 12 percent four hours after the polls opened, election officials said.
Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan party, which faces little challenge from the embattled opposition, is expected to retain its majority in the legislature.
It promised that the election would be democratic.
Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov insisted that "all conditions" had been created for a free and fair vote.
Electoral commissions are controlled by Aliyev's party and all of the oil-rich country's television stations have refused to allocate airtime to representatives of the opposition.
Extending Aliyev's rule
Highly dependent on energy exports, the country has since 2015 been hit by a drop in energy prices and the global economic downturn, and has sharply devalued its currency, the manat.
Analyst Anar Mammadli noted that public anger over economic problems has been growing in the South Caucasus country of nine million people.
"Aliyev chose to hold elections eight months ahead of schedule as he fears that protest sentiment would grow further by November," he told AFP in the run-up to the election.
"Both the government reshuffle and the early polls serve the same purpose of extending Aliyev's rule."
With most powers concentrated in the presidency, parliament has a limited role in the Caspian nation's political system.
"There aren't even minimal conditions in Azerbaijan for holding democratic elections," said Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition Popular Front party which is boycotting the polls.
"There will be an imitation of an election in Azerbaijan," he added ahead of the vote.
Another prominent opposition leader, Isa Gambar of the Musavat party, which is taking part in the vote, complained that authorities had "totally falsified all the previous polls."
Gambar also decried draconian restrictions on the freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan where "people are being arrested and tortured" for taking part in peaceful protest rallies.
Karimli said there were now 130 political prisoners in the country.
Neither free nor fair
None of the elections held in Azerbaijan since Aliyev came to power has been recognised as free and fair by international observers.
Aliyev has ruled the ex-Soviet state with an iron fist since he was first elected in 2003, after the death of his father, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era Communist leader and former KGB general Heydar Aliyev.
Under the Aliyev dynasty, Baku has faced strong international criticism for persecuting political opponents and suffocating independent media.
Sunday's ballot is being monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
More than 1,300 candidates from 19 parties are standing for the 125-seat, single-house parliament, the Milli Majlis.
More than 5.3 million people are eligible to vote. Polls, which opened at 0400 GMT, will close at 1500 GMT.