Overshadowed by criticism and repression, early presidential elections have begun in authoritarian and oil-rich Azerbaijan. It is certain that the 62-year-old ruler Ilham Aliyev, who took over the office in the country in the South Caucasus from his father in 2003, will be declared the winner again after this vote. According to observers, Aliyev’s six opponents are not real rivals; The two largest opposition parties are boycotting the election, which has been criticized as unfair.

Human rights activists also criticize a recent wave of arrests in the country on the Caspian Sea, which has become an important gas and oil supplier to the EU, especially since the start of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Azerbaijan is also hosting the COP29 global climate conference this year.

The more than 6,500 polling stations in Azerbaijan open at 8 a.m. (5 a.m. CET) and are scheduled to close at 7 p.m. (4 p.m. CET). More than six million people are called to vote – including residents of the conflict region of Karabakh, which Azerbaijan recaptured in 2020 and 2023. According to media, Aliyev himself also cast his vote at a polling station in Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, which was called Stepanakert by the former Armenian residents and is now called Khankendi in Azerbaijani.

Experts: Aliyev wants to quickly secure his power

Officially, Aliyev explained that the presidential election was brought forward by saying that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity had now been restored and that the head of state therefore needed new legitimacy. However, political observers tend to believe that the authoritarian president, with the Karabakh triumph behind him, now wants to quickly secure his power before dissatisfaction in society over problems such as high social inequality and rampant corruption continues to grow.

Azerbaijan completely conquered Nagorno-Karabakh last fall. Although the region lies on Azerbaijani territory, until then it was predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. For decades, Karabakh was contested between the two neighboring ex-Soviet republics. The attacks by the Azerbaijani army caused more than 100,000 Karabakh Armenians to flee. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of expulsion and “ethnic cleansing.”