Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party on Sunday won a majority of seats in snap parliamentary polls, according to exit polls, as the opposition denounced what it said was mass electoral fraud.
Aliyev’s Yeni (New) Azerbaijan party has won 69 seats in the 125-member parliament, the Milli Majlis, according to two exit polls conducted by local pollsters.
The ruling party – which faced little challenge from the embattled opposition – promised that the election would be democratic, but opposition parties have accused the government of limiting their ability to campaign and several parties boycotted the vote.
“The elections were totally falsified,” opposition leader Arif Gadjily of the Musavat party told AFP, denouncing what he claimed was widespread ballot stuffing and multiple voting.
Faced with public discontent over a slowing economy Aliyev, 58, hoped to improve the government’s image by holding early elections and replacing discredited old elites with younger technocrats, critics said.
At a polling station in Baku, Vafa Alekperova, a 43-year-old schoolteacher, said she voted for a candidate of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party.
“I trust the party and my hopes for a better future are tied to it,” she said.
Taxi driver Ilgar Gasymov, 58, said he “voted for an opposition candidate because only the opposition cares about ordinary people’s problems.”
More than 5.3 million people were eligible to vote. Turnout stood at nearly 45% as of 1300 GMT, two hours before polls closed, said the central election commission, which was due to start releasing results later Sunday.
Parliamentary elections had originally been scheduled for November this year but in December Aliyev called early polls 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.
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 said.
Highly dependent on oil 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.
Neither free nor fair
With most powers concentrated in the presidency, parliament has a limited role in the Caspian nation’s political system.
Electoral commissions are controlled by Aliyev’s party and all of the oil-rich country’s television stations refused to allocate airtime to the opposition parties.
Prominent opposition leader Isa Gambar decried draconian restrictions on freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan where “people are being arrested and tortured” for taking part in peaceful protest rallies.
None of the elections held in Azerbaijan since Aliyev came to power have been recognized 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 has been monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.