Azerbaijanis voted in a snap presidential election on Wednesday, with a fifth term for Ilham Aliyev seen as a foregone conclusion after his country's landmark victory over Armenian separatists.


The oil-rich nation's main opposition parties are boycotting the vote, which one opposition leader, Ali Kerimli of the National Front party, called an "imitation of democracy".

"There are no conditions in the country for the conduct of free and fair elections," he said.

The six other candidates who are running are little-known and have praised Aliyev as a great statesman and a victorious commander-in-chief since he announced the election in December, a year ahead of schedule.

The country's Central Election Commission said turnout stood at 60.5 percent by 1100 GMT, seven hours after polls opened.

The president and first lady Mehriban Aliyeva went to Karabakh to cast their ballots in the region's main city of Khankendi.

For the first time in Azerbaijan's post-Soviet history, 26 polling stations opened in Karabakh. The enclave has been largely deserted after its entire ethnic-Armenian population -- more than 100,000 people -- fled to Armenia after Baku's takeover.

At a polling station in central Baku, pensioner Shalalya Abbasova, 68, said she voted for Aliyev because he "did what seemed impossible -- accomplished our dream, liberated the occupied territories."

- 'Escalating crackdown' -

Another Baku resident, 32-year-old IT specialist Ismet Bagirov, said he decided not to vote as "there is nobody to vote for, there are no alternative candidates".

"I know many will vote for Aliyev today because he liberated Karabakh. I thank him for this, but there are fundamental issues in the country that remain unresolved."

Last month, Aliyev called the Karabakh victory "an epochal event unparallelled in Azerbaijan's history".

"The election will mark the beginning of a new era" for the country, he said, adding that the country would hold a presidential election on all its territory for the first time.

"The outcome of Wednesday's elections in Azerbaijan is known beforehand, Aliyev is set to win," said independent analyst Ghia Nodia of the Caucasus Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"There is no suspense whatsoever in these elections without a slightest sign of competitiveness."

Supporters have praised Aliyev for turning a country once thought of as a Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe.

But critics say he has crushed opposition groups and suffocated independent media.

"All fundamental rights are being violated in the country, opposition parties can't function normally, freedom of assembly is restricted, media are under government pressure, and political dissent is being suppressed," said Kerimli of the National Front.

In recent months, Azerbaijani authorities have intensified pressure on independent media outlets, arresting several critical journalists who have exposed high level graft.

"The escalating crackdown by Azerbaijani authorities ahead of the elections is not just an attack on individual rights, it's a widespread, coordinated assault on civil society and the rule of law," Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

- Dynastic rule -

Aliyev, 62, was first elected president in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer who had ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.

He was re-elected in 2008, 2013 and in 2018, with 86 percent of the votes.

All the elections 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, a move criticised by rights advocates who say he could become president for life.

In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted controversial constitutional amendments that extended the president's term in office to seven years from five.

Cementing the decades-long dynastic grip on power, the president has appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president.

Around six million voters are registered for the election being monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Polls close at 1500 GMT, with preliminary results expected at 1700 GMT.