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Azerbaijan holds elections decried as sham by opposition

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Baku (AFP)

Azerbaijan on Sunday holds early legislative elections decried by the opposition as a sham vote that will strengthen President Ilham Aliyev's grip on power without bringing any real change.

Parliamentary elections had been scheduled for November, but in December 2019, Aliyev called early polls following 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.

Opposition leaders and independent analysts said Aliyev, 58, sought to address growing public discontent over an economic slowdown and to improve his government's image by replacing discredited old elites with younger technocrats.

"Instead of real change, Aliyev is imitating political reforms by purging from power old members of his team who have long been hated by people," said Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition Popular Front party which is boycotting the polls.

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 told AFP.

"Both the government reshuffle and the early polls serve the same purpose of extending Aliyev's rule," he said.

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.

- 'Imitation of election' -

Aliyev's Yeni (New) Azerbaijan 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.

"We will do our best so that the elections are held in a transparent, free, and democratic environment," the party's deputy executive secretary, Bahar Muradova, told AFP.

With most powers concentrated in the presidency, parliament has a limited role in the Caspian nation's political system.

The opposition has accused the government of limiting their ability to campaign and several parties plan to boycott the vote.

"There aren't even minimal conditions in Azerbaijan for holding democratic elections," Karimli of the Popular Front said.

"There will be an imitation of an election in Azerbaijan," he added.

Another prominent opposition leader, Isa Gambar of the Musavat party, which will participate in the vote, complained that authorities had "totally falsified all the previous polls."

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.

Gambar also 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.

- Neither free nor fair -

None of the elections held in Azerbaijan since Aliyev came to power has been recognised 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 will be 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.

More than 5.3 million people are eligible to vote. Polls are to open at 0400 GMT and close 11 hours later.

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