People wave national flags celebrating Azerbaijan's President Ilhan Aliyev's victory...

People wave national flags celebrating Azerbaijan's President Ilhan Aliyev's victory in the presidential election in Baku, Azerbaijan, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Azerbaijanis voted Wednesday in an election almost certain to see incumbent President Ilhan Aliyev chosen to serve another seven-year term. Credit: AP

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev appeared to be headed to an expected landslide victory in Azerbaijan's presidential election Wednesday in an early vote he called following his government’s swift reclaiming of a region formerly controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists.

With just over 93% of the ballots counted, Aliyev had 92.05% of the votes, the head of the Central Election Commission, Mazahir Panahov, reported in the early hours of Thursday.

The runner-up was getting just 2.19% of the votes, according to Panahov. Three of his challengers have conceded and congratulated Aliyev on winning reelection, the Interfax Azerbaijan news agency reported.

Aliyev, 62, has been in power for more than 20 years, succeeding his father who was Azerbaijan's Communist boss and then president for a decade when it became independent after the 1991 Soviet collapse. The next presidential vote had been set for next year, but Aliyev called an early election shortly after Azerbaijani troops retook the Karabakh region from ethnic Armenian forces who controlled it for three decades.

Analysts suggested Aliyev moved the election forward to capitalize on his burst in popularity following September's blitz in Karabakh. He will be in the limelight in November when Azerbaijan, a country which relies heavily on revenues from fossil fuels, hosts a U.N. climate change conference.

Speaking before the polls opened, 52-year-old Baku resident Sevda Mirzoyeva said she will vote for “victorious” Aliyev, who “returned our lands, which were occupied for many years.”

Turnout was strong, with election officials saying that over 76% of eligible voters cast ballots during the 11-hour voting.

Election posters of all Azerbaijani presidential candidates are displayed in...

Election posters of all Azerbaijani presidential candidates are displayed in Baku, Azerbaijan, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. Azerbaijan will hold presidential elections on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Credit: AP/Sergei Grits

Even before the preliminary results were announced, several hundred people carrying Azerbaijani flags gathered in Baku, celebrating Aliyev's expected reelection with dances and songs. Aliyev's office also reported multiple congratulatory messages from world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Iran's leader Ebrahim Raisi.

Aliyev has declared that he wanted the election to “mark the beginning of a new era,” in which Azerbaijan has full control over its territory. He and his family cast their ballots in Khankendi, a city that was called Stepanakert by Armenians when it housed the headquarters of the self-declared separatist government.

The region, which had been known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh, and large swathes of surrounding territory came under full control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia at the end of a separatist war in 1994.

Azerbaijan regained parts of Karabakh and most of the surrounding territory in 2020 in a six-week war, which ended with a Moscow-brokered truce. In December 2022, Azerbaijan started blockading the road linking the region with Armenia, causing food and fuel shortages, and then launched a September blitz that routed separatist forces in just one day and forced them to lay down arms.

Women walk past campaign posters is in Baku, Azerbaijan, Monday,...

Women walk past campaign posters is in Baku, Azerbaijan, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. Azerbaijan will hold a presidential elections on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Credit: AP/Sergei Grits

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled the region after the defeat of separatist forces, leaving it nearly deserted.

When he visited the city in November, Aliyev said in a speech at a military parade marking the victory that “we showed the whole world the strength, determination and indomitable spirit of the Azerbaijani people.”

In Fuzuli, the Azerbaijani city near Karabakh that was controlled by Armenian forces until 2020, AP reporters witnessed a robust turnout with voters lining up to enter polling stations. The city still lies in ruins after being ravaged under the Armenian occupation, but authorities have built 25 new apartment buildings to house local residents eager to come back.

Raya Feyziyeva, 73, who was forced to leave Fuzuli after its takeover by Armenian forces and the expulsion of its ethnic Azerbaijani population in 1993, said she's grateful to Aliyev for reclaiming her home city.

“We are feeling great because we came back to our native lands after suffering for 30 years,” she said. “I'm a happy person because my main desire has been fulfilled and I feel calm knowing that I will be buried in my native land.”

Vusal Jumshudov, 30, who fought to reclaim the Fuzuli region in 2020 as a soldier, also said he voted for Aliyev. “I feel proud that we freed our native land under Ilham Aliyev's leadership. I'm proud that we cast ballots on our native land,” he said.

In the village of Agali in the Zangilan region, another area near Karabakh that was reclaimed from Armenian forces, turnout was equally strong. Mubariz Farhadov, who is in charge of the local polling station located in a freshly built school, said he was filled with joy to witness a “historic moment” when “elections are held in our native land for the first time in 30 years.”

Zaka Guliyev said he was 8 when his family fled Agali and since then had cherished the memories of their family house and garden. “It left a deep psychological trauma, and the liberation of our lands in Karabakh and around it by Ilham Aliyev and our valiant army healed our spiritual wounds,” he said.

There is no limit on the number of terms Aliyev can serve, and there was no real challenge from six other candidates, some of which have previously publicly praised him.

Aliyev’s time in power has been marked by the introduction of increasingly strict laws that curb political debate as well as arrests of opposition figures and independent journalists — including in the run-up to the presidential election.

Azerbaijan’s two main opposition parties — Musavat and the People’s Front of Azerbaijan — did not take part in the vote, and some opposition members have alleged that Wednesday’s vote might be rigged.

Musavat leader Arif Hajili told The Associated Press that the party would not be participating in the elections because they are not democratic.

“Many journalists and political activists are in jail. There are more than 200 political prisoners. There are serious issues with election law and the election commissions are basically under the authorities’ influence,” Hajili said.

Ali Karimli, leader of People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party, has said that calling for an early election without public debate shows that the authorities are afraid of political competition.

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