Azerbaijan’s president is likely to win the election after a lightning offensive recaptured the Karabakh region.

Baku, Azerbaijan –

Voters in Azerbaijan cast their ballots Wednesday in an early election that will almost certainly give incumbent President Ilham Aliyev another seven-year term, following his government’s rapid recapture of a region formerly controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists.

Aliyev, 62, has been in power for more than 20 years, succeeding his father, who was Azerbaijan’s communist chief and then president for a decade when the country became independent after the 1991 Soviet collapse. The upcoming presidential election was set for next year, but Aliyev called early elections shortly after Azerbaijani troops recaptured the Karabakh region from the ethnic Armenian forces that controlled it for three decades.

Analysts suggested Aliyev brought forward the election to capitalize on his surge in popularity following the September bombing in Karabakh. He will be in the spotlight in November when Azerbaijan, a country heavily dependent on fossil fuel revenues, hosts a UN climate change conference.

Speaking before the polls opened at 04:00 GMT, Baku resident Sevda Mirzoyeva, 52, said she will vote for the “victorious” Aliyev, who “returned our lands, which were occupied for many years.”

Turnout was strong, with election officials saying more than 70% of eligible voters cast ballots during the first nine hours of 11 hours of voting.

Aliyev has stated that he wanted the elections to “mark the beginning of a new era” in which Azerbaijan has full control over its territory. On Wednesday, he and his family cast their votes in Khankendi, a city Armenians called Stepanakert when it housed the headquarters of the self-proclaimed 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 recaptured parts of Karabakh and most of the surrounding territory in 2020 in a six-week war, which ended with a truce brokered by Moscow. In December 2022, Azerbaijan began blocking the highway linking the region to Armenia, causing food and fuel shortages, and then launched a bombardment in September that defeated separatist forces in just one day and forced them to lay down their arms.

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled the region after the defeat of separatist forces, leaving it almost 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 town near Karabakh that was controlled by Armenian forces until 2020, AP reporters witnessed a large turnout of voters lining up to enter polling stations. The city still lies in ruins after being devastated under Armenian occupation, but authorities have built 25 new apartment buildings to house local residents eager to return.

Raya Feyziyeva, 73, who was forced to leave Fuzuli after its takeover by Armenian forces and the expulsion of its ethnic Azerbaijani population in 1993, said she is grateful to Aliyev for taking back her hometown.

“We feel very good because we returned to our homelands after suffering for 30 years,” he said. “I am a happy person because my main wish has been fulfilled and I feel calm knowing that I will be buried in my homeland.”

Vusal Jumshudov, 30, who fought as a soldier to retake the Fuzuli region in 2020, also said he voted for Aliyev. “I am proud to have liberated our homeland under the leadership of Ilham Aliyev. I am proud to have voted in our homeland,” he said.

In the village of Agali in the Zangilan region, another area near Karabakh that was recaptured from Armenian forces, turnout was equally strong. Mubariz Farhadov, head of the local polling station located in a newly built school, said he was overjoyed to witness a “historic moment” when “elections are being held in our homeland for the first time in 30 years.”

Zaka Guliyev said he was eight years old when his family fled Agali and had since cherished memories of his family home and garden. “He left a deep psychological trauma, and the liberation of our lands in and around Karabakh by Ilham Aliyev and our brave army healed our spiritual wounds,” he said.

There is no limit on the number of terms Aliyev can serve, and there is no real challenge from six other candidates, some of whom have previously publicly praised him.

Aliyev’s time in power has been marked by the introduction of increasingly strict laws curbing 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 Azerbaijan Popular Front, will not participate in the vote, and some opposition members have alleged that Wednesday’s vote could be rigged.

Musavat leader Arif Hajili told The Associated Press that the party would not participate in the elections because they are not democratic.

“Many journalists and political activists are imprisoned. There are more than 200 political prisoners. There are serious problems with the electoral law and the electoral commissions are basically under the influence of the authorities,” Hajili said.

Ali Karimli, leader of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front Party, has said that calling for early elections without public debate shows that authorities fear political competition.

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