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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BAKU — Azerbaijanis voted Sunday in snap parliamentary elections decried by the opposition as a sham ballot that will strengthen President Ilham Aliyev's grip on power without bringing any real change.
Critics say that Aliyev, 58, seeks to address growing public discontent over an economic slowdown and to improve his government's image by holding early elections and replacing discredited old elites with younger technocrats.
The opposition accused the government of limiting their ability to campaign and several parties are boycotting the vote.
One of the leaders of the opposition Musavat party, Gulaga Aslanly, decried "mass electoral violations" on Sunday.
He reeled off a litany of alleged irregularities, saying some ballot boxes were not transparent and that others had openings that were too wide.
"One can even drop a mid-sized book into these boxes," he said, adding that monitors faced "obstacles" and pointing to problems with voter lists.
Video footage showed a smiling Aliyev and his family voting at a polling station in the capital 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.
At the same polling station in Baku, 58-year-old taxi driver Ilgar Gasymov said he "voted for an opposition candidate because only the opposition cares about ordinary people's problems".
More than 5.3 million people are eligible to vote. Turnout stood at more than 27 percent as of 0800 GMT, election officials said.
Parliamentary elections had been scheduled for November this year, but in December 2019 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.
Aliyev's party, which faces little challenge from the embattled opposition, is expected to retain its majority in the legislature.
It promised that the election would be democratic.
Yeni Azerbaijan campaign chief Mubariz Gurbanly, speaking to AFP, insisted that "the elections are free, fair, and democratic".
Electoral commissions are controlled by Aliyev's party and all of the oil-rich country's television stations have refused to allocate airtime to representatives of the opposition.
Highly dependent on energy 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.
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.
With most powers concentrated in the presidency, parliament has a limited role in the Caspian nation's political system.
"There aren't even minimal conditions in Azerbaijan for holding democratic elections," said Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition Popular Front party which is boycotting the polls.
Another prominent opposition leader, Isa Gambar of the Musavat party, decried draconian restrictions on the freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan where "people are being arrested and tortured" for taking part in peaceful protest rallies.
Karimli said there were now 130 political prisoners in the country.
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 is being monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
More than 1,300 candidates from 19 parties are standing for the 125-seat, single-house parliament, the Milli Majlis. Polls close at 1500 GMT. — AFP
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