BAKU -- An exit poll in Azerbaijan's February 9 parliamentary elections suggests President Ilham Aliyev's ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) has increased its share by four seats in the single-chamber legislature and only one opposition candidate has won a seat.
The exit poll conducted by the U.S.-based firm Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates suggests YAP won a total of 69 seats in the 125-seat parliament. The YAP had 65 seats in the outgoing parliament, the Milli Majlis.
The exit poll also suggests that Azerbaijan's nominally independent candidates, most of whom support the policies of the YAP, won 41 seats in the elections.
Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission approved Finkelstein to conduct the exit poll, which it has done in previous votes as well. It was not immediately clear who funded the exit survey by the U.S.-based pollster.
According to the exit poll, the only opposition candidate expected to make it into the next parliament is Erkin Gadirli of the Republican Alternative Civic Movement (REAL).
Aliyev's YAP declared victory during the early morning hours of February 10.
A statement on the party's website said: "Exit poll results make us think that New Azerbaijan got a majority of votes."
Hikmet Hacizade, a Baku-based political analyst and democracy advocate, told RFE/RL that, if the ruling YAP is challenged by even a handful of the nominally independent lawmakers in the new parliament, it will be a change from the previous assembly.
"In the outgoing parliament, no one spoke up," Hacizade said. "Actually, there was nobody from the opposition [in the previous parliament.]"
He says it will be "a blessing" if "there are just five people in the [new] parliament who speak independently and have the heart to speak up."
He also said that lawmakers will bear shame if they were elected as independent candidates but "do nothing" in the new parliament."
The snap election was called by Aliyev in December 2019. The ballot was boycotted by some opposition parties in protest over limitations on access to media and the right to peaceably assemble.
Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission (CEC) said turnout was 47.81 percent of eligible voters with more than 2.5 million people casting ballots.
The official turnout for the last parliamentary elections in 2015 was 55.7 percent.
Reports of irregularities included multiple voting, interrupted video feeds at polling stations, and hindrance or abuse of independent observers.
Critics have cast serious doubt on hopes of genuine reforms that might strengthen the country's long-beleaguered opposition.
WATCH: Azerbaijani Voters Go To The Polls
Instead, critics say, Aliyev and his allies are seeking a way to ensure a line of succession that began with Aliyev's father, a Soviet-era KGB leader and Politburo member who passed the presidency to his son shortly before his death nearly two decades ago.
Isa Gambar, former head of Azerbaijan's opposition Musavat party, told RFE/RL in Baku on February 9 that there was "excessive passivity" among voters with "few who came to vote."
Gambar says he expects that "nothing has changed" between the outgoing parliament and the newly elected legislature.
"A majority of the members of the so-called parliament that dissolved itself are being reappointed as deputies," Gambar told RFE/RL. "Such a parliament will further deepen the already existing political crisis in the country and will increase the political instability that is already taking place."
The February 9 elections originally were scheduled for November until they were moved forward by nine months in December 2019, when Aliyev signed a decree to dissolve the existing parliament.
Aliyev’s YAP said the composition of the legislature needed to be changed in order to carry out Aliyev’s "reform" program. His 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.
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.
Parliamentary powers are limited in Azerbaijan. Most political power in the Caucasus nation is concentrated in the hands of the presidency.
The post of prime minister in Azerbaijan has long been held by a close ally of Aliyev, who took over the presidency in 2003 after his father ruled the country the previous 10 years.
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.
According to the CEC, some 5.3 million voters were eligible to cast ballots on February 9.
Initial official results are expected to be announced in the early morning hours of February 10.
Minor complaints were already trickling in within hours of the opening of polling stations.
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 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 with 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.
Apparent power outages meanwhile cut the lights for more than half an hour at some polling stations in Suraxani and Hovsan, northeast of the capital.
WATCH: Stuffed Ballot Boxes And Carousels: Azerbaijan Votes Again Under Scrutiny
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have noted that the number of registered voters in more than half of the 125 constituencies deviated by more than what the Election Code allows.
"A difference of approximately 2 million persists between the number of registered voters as per CEC data and the number of citizens of voting age according to the State Statistics Committee,” the OSCE Election Observation Mission (ODIHR) said in a January 29 preelection report from Baku.
Voters who had not yet registered were allowed to do so on election day if they provided proof of residency in Azerbaijan.
Election officials registered 1,637 candidates who had applied by the January 10 deadline.
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.
Istanbul-based Azerbaijani political commentator and contributor to RFE/RL Arzu Geybullayeva said the elections would be different from previous parliamentary votes because of the emergence of new "genuine candidates" who were running as independents or who had joined forces under a new political bloc called Movement.
Movement, which was formed in December after the early elections were announced, brings together human rights activists, rights lawyers, election observes, bloggers, feminists, youth activists, and politicians.
Poor Democratic Record
Since Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, its elections have repeatedly been deemed as falling short of democratic standards by international observers from the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
OSCE observers say Azerbaijan conducts its elections "within a restrictive environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms."
Independent media have also been stifled economically or closed by force, as was the case with the Baku bureau of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service in December 2014.
The Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders says Aliyev has waged "a relentless war" against his media critics, with journalists and bloggers being "jailed on absurd grounds if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail, or bribes."
OSCE observers say most media in Azerbaijan have avoided covering the candidates, parties, and political issues during the official campaign period to avoid being accused of violating a stifling "equal coverage" rule in the Election Code.