President Ilham Aliyev's ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) has claimed a landslide victory in the country’s November 1 parliamentary elections -- a vote that was boycotted by Europe's largest monitoring agency and all of Azerbaijan’s established opposition parties.
Aliyev's ruling party was widely expected to maintain its dominance as a result of the election, which came in the midst of a persistent government clampdown on dissent that shows few signs of being lifted.
The former Soviet republic's 5,547 polling stations closed at 7 p.m.local time and some 5 million Azerbaijanis were eligible to vote.
Azerbaijan's established opposition parties have refused to participate in the elections, though some individual opposition candidates are running for spots in the 125-seat parliament, which is dominated by YAP.
The established opposition parties said that the government's policy of offering free television air time to the ruling party, but requiring that all others pay commercial rates, made it unaffordable for them to campaign and reach a wide audience.
Aysel Hadjiyeva, a 29-year-old shop assistant, told AFP news agency that she has "no trust in Yeni Azerbaijan and its satellite parties that are running in the elections."
"I crossed out all candidates' names in the ballot paper. This is my protest. I would have voted for the opposition, but they are boycotting the elections," she said.
But Alimusa Sattarov, a 58-year-old schoolteacher, told AFP at a polling station in Baku that he had supported the ruling party because "Yeni Azerbaijan is the only party capable of ensuring the country's economic development and stability."
Independent Azerbaijani observers alleged they observed a number of violations including ballot-box stuffing, "carousel" voting in which people cast ballots at multiple polling stations, and pre-marked ballots.
An independent candidate, Tural Abbasli, said that one group of people had voted at at least three polling stations and that observers were being harassed. An electoral official denied the claims.
The election takes place amid a sustained two-year crackdown on opposition groups, human rights activists, and independent journalists that has decimated Azerbaijani civil society.
“Things have really never been worse," said Rebecca Vincent, a former U.S. diplomat who is coordinator of Sports for Rights, an international campaign drawing attention to human rights violations in oil-rich Azerbaijan, which sought to improve its image by holding the first-ever European Games in June.
"This election is taking place with no credible international observers," she notes. "[Established] opposition groups are not participating, you have got a main opposition leader sitting in jail, and you have got the country's top [independent] election monitor sitting in jail."
An umbrella organization uniting part of Azerbaijan's opposition forces, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), announced a boycott in September, saying the government had failed to create the necessary conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections.
The Republican Alternative (REAL) Movement, whose leader Ilgar Mammadov is in jail, said on October 27 that the results of the election would be meaningless given the overall election environment.
Musavat and the Popular Front also said in recent days they would boycott the election and would not recognize the official results.
The head of the country's best-known independent election monitoring group, Anar Mammadi, has been in prison on a five-year sentence since 2014 after saying that the 2013 presidential election, which officially gave the incumbent Aliyev 85 percent of the vote, could not count as free and democratic.
Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family since two years after the 1991 Soviet breakup. The ruling elite established by Ilham Aliyev's father, Heydar monopolized the country's oil wealth and created a patronage-based system of rule that passed intact to his son, whom he steered into the presidency shortly before his death in 2003.
Over the past two years, room for criticizing the government has shrunk ever further. A wave of arrests in has targeted opposition bloggers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Among the best-known are investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison in September on charges that rights groups have called retribution for her reports on corruption involving senior government officials, and jailed human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus.
At the same time, Azerbaijani election authorities have made it all but impossible for opposition parties to air their message during campaign seasons on state television. Changes to the election code have restricted free air time to only parties fielding candidates in 60 percent of the races for legislative seats, a requirement only the ruling YAP meets.
Analysts said the crackdown has made the outcome of the parliamentary election a foregone conclusion. The parliament, which is subordinate to executive branch of the government and has little authority of its own, will remain overwhelmingly dominated by YAP and nominally independent deputies allied with it.
"The chances of a fair and free election were eliminated long before election day," said Vincent.
Aliyev's election to a third term in 2013 came after he abolished a two-term limit in a 2009 constitutional referendum, potentially enabling him to remain president for life.
Aliyev, whose mostly Muslim country has been courted by the United States and Europe because of its energy reserves and strategic location in an area between Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia, has repeatedly shrugged off Western criticism of rights record.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) refused to send monitors to the polls after Baku sought to limit their number to a core team of 131 long and short-term observers.
That is about one-third the number of monitors that the OSCE -- whose assessment of an election as fair or fraudulent is widely recognized as an evaluation of a country's democratization -- felt was necessary to do its work.
Some other international observers, including from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), were monitoring the elections.