BAKU: Azeri voters headed to the polls on Sunday for a parliamentary election which Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party is widely expected to win, and which mainstream opposition and international monitors are shunning.
Aliyev has consolidated his power since succeeding his father and long-serving leader Heydar in 2003, presiding over a period when officials say revenues from rising oil and gas exports have delivered better living standards.
Rights groups accuse the government of curbing freedoms and of silencing dissent, while the opposition complains of harassment, a lack of access to broadcasting, and draconian restrictions on campaigning.
The government denies wrongdoing, and Western governments, who are courting Azerbaijan as an alternative source of oil and gas to Russia, balance their criticism over human rights with strategic considerations.
Azerbaijan is host to oil majors including BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp.
“We got 71 (out of 125) seats at the previous election and we have every chance to repeat that victory this time,” Ali Akhmedov, the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party, said.
The mainstream opposition in Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country of about 9 million people between Iran, Russia and Turkey, is boycotting the poll.
“The pre-election period was marred by massive violations. That’s why we decided not to participate,” opposition Musavat Party leader, Arif Gajily, told Reuters.
All 125 seats in the single-chamber parliament, which is elected every five years, will be filled through voting for individual candidates in electoral districts.
Human Rights Watch said this week that Azeri authorities had convicted or imprisoned at least 35 journalists and rights and political activists in 2014 and that “the crackdown continued at a dizzying pace.”
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would not monitor the election because restrictions imposed on it by the authorities made credible poll monitoring impossible.
“I urge Azerbaijan’s leaders to engage with their citizens and with the international community in an open and honest dialogue aimed at bringing human rights and rule of law back to the country,” the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s democracy and human rights chairperson, Isabel Santos, said earlier this week.
Some foreign journalists, including reporters from Reuters, were not issued with accreditation to cover the election. The foreign ministry cited technical difficulties.
Polls close at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) and official preliminary results are expected to follow within hours.