Azerbaijan’s strongman Ilham Aliyev called on Monday (5 February) a snap presidential vote for 11 April, six months ahead of schedule, as opposition politicians slammed the surprise move.
“Set the date of the election of the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan on 11 April,” Aliyev ordered in a decree posted on his website without providing an immediate explanation for the move.
Last week, the deputy chair of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Ali Akhmedov, said that Aliyev planned to run for a fourth consecutive term.
The oil-rich country was initially set to hold the vote on 17 October and the decision to call early elections sparked strong criticism from opposition parties.
“The Aliyevs have been in power for some 45 years already and that contradicts the principles of a democratic republic,” the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, Ali Kerimli, told AFP.
The veteran politician said the decision to hold an early vote was aimed at shortening the election campaign and “hampering the opposition’s efforts to prevent vote rigging”.
So far, two opposition candidates — Musavat party leader Isa Gambar and the chairman of the Classical Popular Front Party, Mirmahmud Miralioglu – have announced plans to run for president.
President for life?
Aliyev, 56, was first elected president in 2003, after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.
He was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as rigged.
In 2009, Aliyev amended the country’s constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in a move criticised by rights advocates who say he could become a president for life.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan adopted controversial constitutional amendments in 2016 to extend the president’s term in office to seven years from five.
The changes drew criticism from the Council of Europe constitutional law experts as “severely upsetting the balance of powers” and giving the president “unprecedented” authority.
Cementing his family’s decades-long grip on power, the president last year appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president.
The Azerbaijani government has faced strong international criticism for routinely harassing and jailing those opposed to Aliyev’s regime.
Aliyev has denied any rights abuses.
Azerbaijan is locked in a bitter dispute with Armenia over separatist Nagorny Karabakh region, which has been under Armenian control since it was seized during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force.