Azeris head to polls as president moves to modernise parliament

By Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze
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Azeris head to polls as president moves to modernise parliament

A man casts his vote at a polling station during a snap parliamentary election in Baku

By Nailia Bagirova and Margarita Antidze

BAKU (Reuters) - Azeris voted in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday seen as the next step by President Ilham Aliyev to consolidate power and speed economic reforms by replacing the old guard associated with his father with younger legislators.

Aliyev, who has been in power for 17 years, called the election in December, nine months before it was formally due. Officials from his ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party said the move was "to support the president's policy on reforms and personnel changes".

In October, Aliyev dismissed his influential chief-of-staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and made other high-profile changes including the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister.

The president criticised the pace of economic reforms and said he wanted to clear out government officials who had reached pensionable age, a move seen as intended to force out people from the era of his father, Heydar Aliyev.

Sunday's election - while not a full democratic contest - pit veteran lawmakers against young, Western-educated candidates from the same, ruling party in an effort to overhaul the legislature with more able technocrats, analysts say.

"I would call this an authoritarian modernisation project," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.

"Old Soviet-style bureaucrats are being pushed out and younger more professional figures are being given top jobs."

Despite its energy resources, the South Caucasus country on the Caspian Sea struggles with unemployment, and many of the 10 million population see little benefit from the oil and gas it produces.

The mainstream opposition accused the ruling party, which has governed for almost three decades, of holding the vote in unfair conditions.

"We are already observing a number of violations in polling stations where we have observers," the opposition Musavat Party's leader, Isa Gmbar, told Reuters.

A shake-up of the governing elite is not expected to bring any change in foreign policy. Azerbaijan is not aligned to any big regional grouping such as the European Union or the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and its foreign policy is balanced between Russia, the West and Iran.

Some voters said they felt things were getting better.

"After personnel changes and reforms initiated by the president, I have hope for the future and think the country is on the way to improving the situation," Alia Gafarova, a teacher, said after casting a ballot at a polling station in central Baku.

The central election commission said that turnout by 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) was over 39%.

Aliyev has held power since he was elected in October 2003, two months before the death of his father who held power for a decade. He won elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018, and two separate referendums scrapped a two-term presidential limit and extended the presidential term to seven years from five.

He appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva first vice president, the second most powerful post after the president, in 2017.

Western nations have courted Azerbaijan because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe, but various European bodies and rights groups have accused Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents. Baku denies the accusations.

Polls close at 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) and official preliminary results are expected to follow within hours.

(Editing by Ros Russell and Philippa Fletcher)