Azerbaijan strongman to cement power in polls boycotted by the opposition

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, pictured with First Lady and First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, is certain to secure a fourth term in office in Wednesday's vote

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev is set to secure a fourth consecutive term on Wednesday in snap polls boycotted by the oil-rich nation's main opposition parties. Aliyev's electoral win is widely seen as a foregone conclusion with the downtrodden opposition unable to mount a serious challenge to his authoritarian rule boosted by the steady influx of petrodollars into his government's coffers. Opposition parties in the tightly-controlled Caucasus nation said that the conditions to hold a democratic election are not in place and accused authorities of preparing to rig the vote. They have also denounced Aliyev's surprise -- and unexplained -- decision to hold the vote six months ahead of schedule as aimed at shortening the campaign period and hampering the opposition's efforts to prevent vote rigging. "People are denied the freedom of expression and assembly, media are stifled and the opposition oppressed in Azerbaijan," the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, Ali Kerimli, told AFP. "This is a travesty of an election, everyone knows that Aliyev will simply make up the results." The executive secretary of the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAL), Natig Jafarli, said that "the opposition was not given a possibility to hold a normal campaign." "All previous elections in Azerbaijan were falsified and held with blatant violations of the electoral law. These elections will not be an exception," he said. The ReAL's leader, Ilgar Mammadov, was arrested in 2013 just before he was expected to stand for president and has remained in prison since then. The ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party on its part has rejected the opposition's criticism, insisting the vote will be free and fair. "The snap vote has been called in full compliance with the requirements of the law, it will be well organised and democratic," the party's deputy executive secretary, Bahar Muradova, told AFP. "Those who call themselves the opposition have chosen a strange tactics of a boycott," she said. "It is irresponsible that they put themselves outside the electoral process." - 'Hidden wealth' - Aliyev, 56, was first elected president in 2003, after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as rigged. In 2009, Aliyev amended the country's constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in a move criticised by rights advocates who say he could become a president for life. In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted controversial constitutional amendments, extending the president's term in office to seven years from five. The changes drew criticism from the Council of Europe constitutional law experts as "severely upsetting the balance of powers" and giving the president "unprecedented" authority. Cementing his family's decades-long grip on power, the president last year appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president. Aliyev's "goal appears to be a political environment in which the Aliyev dynasty is unchallenged," a US diplomatic cable carried by whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks said in 2009. Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as a Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe. But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family. "For decades, the Aliyevs have been appropriating Azerbaijan's national riches, they have amassed an immense hidden wealth," Khadija Ismayilova, an anti-corruption crusader, told AFP. "They cling to power to continue looting the country's resources," said the award-winning journalist who spent 17 months in jail in 2014-2016 after she exposed official graft. In 2010, The Washington Post wrote about lavish property worth $75 million (60 million euros) in Dubai in the names of the president's son Heydar - who was a schoolboy at the time -- and his daughters Arzu and Leyla. Aliyev has denied accusations of rights abuses and corruption.