Azerbaijan’s authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev announced Monday that presidential elections would be moved up from their originally scheduled date of October 17 to April 11, according to a decree posted on the official website of the presidency.
Aliyev issued the decree under a constitutional law amended in September 2016 that allowed him to extend the presidential term from five to seven years and allows the chief executive to call for snap presidential elections if announced 60 days in advance.
The Aliyev family has run the oil-rich South Caucasus nation since 1969 when his father, Heydar, was appointed to head the Central Committee of the Azeri Communist Party by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The elder Aliyev was a former KGB general and major power broker in the Caucasus during the Soviet Union. He handed over the reigns of power to his son, Ilham, in 2003 and died shortly thereafter.
Since taking over for his father, Aliyev, 56, has ruled the Turkic-speaking, mainly Shiite Muslim nation of 10 million people with an iron fist and the same brand of fierce nepotism that characterized his predecessor’s regime.
His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, currently serves as first vice president and after abolishing the age limit for the presidency appears to be grooming his 20-year-old son, Heydar, to succeed him.
Aliyev has come under fire from rights groups and most Western governments for his systemic crackdown on political opponents, human rights activists, and journalists who accuse him of rigging elections and suppressing freedom of speech.
Prominent journalists Khadija Ismayilova and Mehman Aliyev (no relation) have both spent time in prison for their criticism of the regime. Afghan Mukhtarli, also an opposition journalist, was abducted in neighbouring Georgia’s capital Tbilisi by Aliyev’s security services and forcibly repatriated to Azerbaijan, where he is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for a border violation.
Aliyev has played a delicate balancing act during his years in power. Much like his father, he’s cultivated Western investment into the country, while retaining close ties to Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Azerbaijan is one of Moscow’s main client states for military hardware, having spent billions on highly sophisticated Russian-made equipment in an attempt to overhaul its military. The deals have infuriated the Kremlin’s traditional Caucasus ally, Armenia, who regard Azerbaijan as their mortal enemy after routing Baku’s forces in a bloody war over the Nagorny-Karabakh region in the early 1990s.
Though Turkic-speaking, Azerbaijan is historically tied to nearby Iran through culture and their shared Shi’a branch of Islam. The decidedly secular Aliyev, however, has often baulked at growing too close to the Islamic Republic out of fear that Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps would attempt to wield influence in Baku.
He has remained on cordial relations with his equally autocratic counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and cultivated close security and intelligence ties with Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Azerbaijan’s main opposition party, Musavat, believes Aliyev’s decision to move the election date up by six months is an attempt to derail the campaign process and cover the growing divisions within the Aliyev regime.