BAKU (Reuters) - President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party is poised to sweep the board in a parliamentary election in Azerbaijan on Sunday, a vote the mainstream opposition and international monitors are shunning.
Aliyev has consolidated his power since succeeding his father and long-serving leader Heydar in 2003, presiding over a period when officials say revenues from rising oil and gas exports have delivered better living standards.
Rights groups accuse the government of curbing freedoms and of silencing dissent, while the opposition complains of harassment, a lack of access to air time, and draconian restrictions on campaigning.
The government denies wrongdoing, and Western governments, who are courting Azerbaijan as an alternative source of oil and gas to Russia, balance their criticism over human rights with strategic considerations.
Azerbaijan is host to oil majors including BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron.
“We got 71 (out of 125) seats at the previous election and we have every chance to repeat that victory this time,” Ali Akhmedov, the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party, said.
The mainstream opposition in Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country of about 9 million people, sandwiched between Iran, Russia and Turkey, is boycotting the poll.
“The pre-election period was marred by massive violations. That’s why we decided not to participate,” opposition Musavat Party leader, Arif Gajily, told Reuters.
Several rights activists and journalists have been jailed this year. They include Leyla Yunus, the head of the Baku-based Institute for Peace and Democracy, and Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent journalist from the U.S. government-funded radio station Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, known for exposing corruption among top government officials.
Human Rights Watch said this week that Azeri authorities had convicted or imprisoned at least 35 journalists and rights and political activists in 2014 and that “the crackdown continued at a dizzying pace.”
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would not monitor the election because restrictions imposed on it by the authorities made credible poll monitoring impossible.
“I urge Azerbaijan’s leaders to engage with their citizens and with the international community in an open and honest dialogue aimed at bringing human rights and rule of law back to the country,” the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s democracy and human rights chairperson, Isabel Santos, said earlier this week.
Some foreign journalists, including reporters from Reuters, were not issued with accreditation to cover the election. The foreign ministry cited technical difficulties.
Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Susan Thomas