Azerbaijan's president set to win reelection in a snap vote, riding on a victory in Karabakh

AP , Wednesday 7 Feb 2024

Azerbaijanis are voting Wednesday in a snap 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.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev casts his ballot
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev casts his ballot as his family members stand near during presidential election at a polling station in Khankendi, Karabakh region, Azerbaijan, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. AP

 

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 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 September's 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.

Speaking before the polls opened at 0400 GMT, 52-year-old Baku resident Sevda Mirzoyeva said she will vote for “victorious” Aliyev, who “returned our lands, which were occupied for many years.”

Aliyev has declared that he wanted the election to “mark the beginning of a new era,” in which Azerbaijan has full control over its territory. On Wednesday, he and his wife cast their ballots in Khankendi, a city that was called Stepanakert by Armenians when it housed the headquarters of the self-declared separatist government.

The region, which had been known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh, and large swathes of surrounding territory came under full control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia at the end of a separatist war in 1994.

Azerbaijan regained parts of it and most of the surrounding territory in 2020 in a six-week war, which ended with a Moscow-brokered truce. In December 2022, Azerbaijan started blockading the road linking the region with Armenia, causing food and fuel shortages, and then launched a September blitz that routed separatist forces in just one day and forced them to lay down arms.

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled the region after the defeat of separatist forces, leaving it nearly deserted.

When he visited the city in November, Aliyev said in a speech at a military parade marking the victory that “we showed the whole world the strength, determination and indomitable spirit of the Azerbaijani people.”

In Fuzuli, the Azerbaijani city near Karabakh that was controlled by Armenian forces until 2020, AP reporters witnessed a robust turnout with voters lining up to enter polling stations.

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.

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.

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 Associated Press 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.

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