BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan’s long-serving Ilham Aliyev is expected to easily win re-election for seven more years on Wednesday in a vote boycotted by major opposition parties which accuse him of authoritarian rule and suppressing political dissent.
The country’s huge energy reserves and its strategic location along the Caspian Sea means it is viewed by Europe as an important alternative to Russian energy supplies.
Opposition parties say they are staying away from Wednesday’s vote because of Aliyev’s sustained crackdown on dissent during his rule and because they say the results will be rigged.
The 56-year-old Aliyev, in power since 2003 when he succeeded his father, and his supporters deny allegations of democratic abuses and election fraud.
His opponents say Aliyev benefits too from only muted criticism from Europe because of his country’s perceived strategic value and the risk of stirring instability in the region.
Aliyev brought forward the date of the vote to April 11 from Oct. 17, a move his allies said was necessary to avoid presidential and parliamentary elections clashing in 2025.
Seven other candidates are running in Wednesday’s election, which will be observed by international monitors, including the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) but critics have expressed doubts about how genuine the other candidates are.
“Many ODIHR (OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) interlocutors said they do not expect the election to be genuinely competitive, claiming that those who stand against the incumbent in this election either do not present a political alternative or even actively support him,” ODIHR said in a March 29 report.
The main opposition parties say the vote is illegal and are boycotting it.
“We are certain that the election results will be rigged and Ilham Aliyev will be announced the winner again,” Jamil Hasanly, head of the National Council of Democratic Forces, the Azeri opposition coalition, told Reuters.
After taking power from his father Heydar in 2003, Aliyev cemented his position with two referendums, one in 2009 which scrapped a two-term presidential limit, and another in 2016, which extended the head of state’s term of office to seven years from five.
The opposition say these steps are illegal and undemocratic.
Aliyev has tried to strike a balance between big regional power Russia and the West, notably on energy policy.
His rule benefited from an economic boom fueled by oil exports, but a slump in global oil prices in the last three years has weakened the Azeri manat currency and shrunk the economy.
Many people in Azerbaijan are struggling on low incomes and amid a growing gap between rich and poor tensions are rising with neighboring Armenia over a territorial conflict that caused a war in the 1990s.
“I’m sure that the election results do not depend on the choices of voters and that’s why I’m not going to vote,” said Sanubar Aliyeva, a 56-year-old housewife, whose two adult sons are unemployed.
Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Balmforth
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