Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Thursday called snap presidential elections in February, in a move expected to extend the decades-long authoritarian rule of his family.
Aliyev’s popularity is soaring after his military recaptured the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenian separatists in a lightning offensive in September.
A decree published by the presidency ordered officials to hold a “snap election” on Feb. 7 next year. Elections had previously been scheduled for 2025.
A state-run pollster recently said 75% of the population approve of Aliyev’s handling of the Karabakh conflict, which saw the mass exodus of ethnic Armenians living in the long-disputed mountainous territory.
“Aliyev’s approval ratings had always been high, and they skyrocketed after the victorious military operation in Karabakh in September,” independent political analyst Farhad Mamedov told AFP. “He is at the peak of his popularity.”
Aliyev sent troops to Karabakh on Sept. 19 and after just one day of fighting, Armenian separatist forces that had controlled the disputed region for three decades laid down arms and agreed to reintegrate with Baku.
Azerbaijan’s victory marked the end of the territorial dispute, which saw Azerbaijan and Armenia fight two wars — in 2020 and the 1990s — that have claimed tens of thousands of lives from both sides.
It also sparked fears — particularly among Armenians — of a broader conflict in the region in which Azerbaijan could aim to create a land corridor to its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenian territory.
Aliyev insists Baku has no territorial claims to Armenia and rules out a fresh conflict.
The arch-foe countries are now negotiating a comprehensive peace treaty, but the Western-mediated talks have so far failed to produce a breakthrough.
Aliyev, 61, has ruled the energy-rich country with an iron fist since 2003, when he succeeded his father, Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss.
He was last re-elected with 86% of votes in a snap election in April 2018.
All leadership polls held in Azerbaijan under Aliyevs’ rule were denounced by opposition parties as fraudulent.
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, stifled media, and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.
Rights activists have recently decried the arrest of several high-profile journalists known for investigations into corruption among the political elite.
In 2009, Azerbaijan adopted constitutional amendments that removed the two-term limit to the presidential mandate, meaning Aliyev could potentially become a president for life.
In 2016, after a constitutional referendum at which presidential terms were extended from five to seven years, he appointed his glamorous wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president.
The amendments drew criticism from constitutional law experts of the Council of Europe rights watchdog as “severely upsetting the balance of powers” and giving the president “unprecedented” authority.
Bolstered by billions in oil money, Aliyev has overseen years of steady economic growth and followed a pragmatic foreign policy agenda, treading carefully between Russia and the West.
That calculating approach saw him likened in one U.S. diplomatic cable to the coldblooded fictional character of Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” movies.
“His goal appears to be a political environment in which the Aliyev dynasty is unchallenged,” said the cable, released by whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks.