BAKU -- The ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) is set to gain a majority of seats in the Caucasus country's single-chamber parliament, following snap elections that observers say will allow President Ilham Aliyev to remove elites associated with his father in a consolidation of power through reforms.
YAP candidates won 81 of the 125 seats in parliament, according to data provided by the Central Election Commission (CEC) on February 10 based on voting protocols from almost all polling stations.
The CEC put the turnout at 47.81 percent, nearly eight percentage points less than in the previous parliamentary elections.
The result, if it holds, gives the ruling party an increase of 16 seats from what it had in the outgoing parliament, the Milli Majlis, before the snap elections were called.
Pro-government parties and nominally independent candidates who support YAP policies took all the rest of the seats in the February 9 elections, which were marred by apathy among voters and reports of irregularities such as multiple voting, interrupted video feeds at polling stations, and the hindrance and abuse of independent observers.
In a preliminary report, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe said "the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition" in the elections, while "significant procedural violations during counting and the tabulation” were reported on voting day.
Voting was "assessed negatively" at 7 percent of polling stations observed, the report said, adding that the "statistically high figure" is indicative of "serious procedural shortcomings."
In a statement on February 10, the U.S. Embassy in Baku seconded the conclusions drawn by the OSCE report.
"The United States shares the observations and concerns of the OSCE ODIHR monitoring mission that the February 9 parliamentary elections transpired in a restrictive legislative and political environment that prevented genuine competition," the statement said.
"The elections were marked by limitations on the freedom of media and assembly. We were disappointed by significant procedural violations observed by ODIHR on Election Day, including ballot box stuffing, group voting, a disregard of reconciliation procedures, and limited transparency during vote counting," it said.
The ballot was boycotted by some opposition parties in protest over limitations on access to media and the right to peaceably assemble.
Since Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its elections have repeatedly been deemed as falling short of democratic standards by international observers.
The 58-year-old Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since shortly before his father's death 17 years ago, called the election in December, nine months before it was formally due, amid public discontent over a slowing economy. YAP said the composition of the legislature needed to be changed in order to carry out Aliyev’s "reform" program.
But instead of genuine reforms that might strengthen the country's long-beleaguered opposition, opposition leaders and analysts say the president hopes to boost the government's image by replacing discredited unpopular old elites with younger technocrats.
Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent Turan news agency, told RFE/RL that "the only purpose was to put a number of candidates out of parliament and bring new ones in their place -- and nothing else."
Critics say Aliyev and his allies are seeking a way to ensure a line of succession that began with the president's father, Heydar, a Soviet-era KGB leader and Politburo member who passed the presidency to his son shortly before his death.
Aliyev’s reform plan follows several high-profile changes in the government and his administration near the end of last year that included the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister.
"This can be described as an effort at 'authoritarian modernization,'” at making public services more efficient within the same strict authoritarian framework. That will be welcome for much of the public, but will it be enough?" Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, said before the weekend vote.
"Clearly, a generational overhaul is underway. Does this also mean a big surge of reform in Azerbaijan? There are some reasons to be skeptical," he added, noting that the old guard may be swept aside only for a Baku-based business-political elite to take control of the country instead.
Some critics say the party’s hope for a change in the composition of parliament suggests Aliyev’s party may be trying to clear the way for Aliyev's wife, First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, to take over the presidency at a later date.
In fact, parliamentary powers are limited in Azerbaijan. Most political power in the Caucasus country is concentrated in the hands of the presidency.
Aliyev -- who was reelected in 2008, 2013, and 2018 -- was able to consolidate his power through a 2009 referendum that abolished the country’s two-term presidential limit and a 2016 referendum that lengthened presidential terms to seven years.
Minor complaints were already trickling in within hours of the opening of polling stations on February 9.
Some independent observers said they saw instances of carousel voting -- when people visit multiple polling stations -- and people casting multiple ballots at once.
One candidate reported seeing an ambulance ferrying voters to multiple polling stations.
One election monitor working for a candidate said he was beaten and thrown out out of a polling station he was attempting to observe.
Other election monitors said they were being prevented from entering polling stations or were ordered to remain in certain locations. The Institute for Democratic Initiatives shared several videos of people interfering with observers seeking to record at polling stations.
Cameras were being blocked at some of the 1,000 or so voting locations that had live video feeds.
One candidate, activist and blogger Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that he was initially prevented from voting at a Baku polling station and was told he hadn't registered properly. But an election official later said access to the polling station was being limited ahead of President Aliyev's arrival there to vote.
Meanwhile, apparent power outages cut the lights for more than half an hour at some polling stations in Suraxani and Hovsan, northeast of the capital.
Election officials registered 1,637 candidates. A total of 19 political parties fielded 272 of the candidates. They included 123 candidates from the ruling YAP, followed by 25 from the opposition Musavat party and 21 from the opposition Party of Hope (UMID).
A total of 81 lawmakers, about two-thirds of the outgoing parliament, were seeking reelection.