The people of Azerbaijan will vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday overshadowed by a merciless crackdown on human rights in the oil-rich former Soviet country.
There's little doubt that Yeni Azerbaijan, the ruling party chaired by Ilham Aliyev, the country's president, will retain its majority in the one-chamber Milli Mejlis or parliament.
Azerbaijan’s leading opposition parties have all decided to boycott the poll, citing multiple electoral irregularities, including the official intimidation of their supporters.
That leaves any seats not won by Yeni Azerbaijan up for grabs by various nominally opposition parties or independents known for their loyalty to Aliyev.
“The election result will not reflect the will of the people,” Azerbaijan’s Republican Alternative opposition movement said this week. “Responsibility for the destruction of the institution of elections in the country rests with the government.”
Yeni Azerbaijan has presented itself during the campaign as the only party capable of guaranteeing stability, a claim that, at a particularly difficult time for the country, may sway some ambivalent voters.
Reliant on oil and gas exports for the bulk of its revenues, Azerbaijan has been badly hit by the slump in world oil prices. Pressure on the country’s finances obliged the government to devalue the national currency early this year, decimating the value of people’s savings.
It is now far more of a challenge for Mr Aliyev to deliver on his promise to raise living standards. Even retaining the loyalty of Azerbaijan’s rich may become difficult as the powerful elite scrabble over a shrinking pie of resources. Only last week Mr Aliyev fired his national security minister without any explanation sparking speculation about possible unrest in the president’s inner circle.
Mr Aliyev, who inherited the presidency from his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB colonel, in 2003 has always been intolerant of dissent, but the ferocity of Azerbaijan’s crackdown on human rights over the past two years has taken even the country’s critics by surprise.
Rights activists, independent journalists, and opposition politicians have been muzzled using repressive legislation or thrown in jail on criminal charges their supporters say have been fabricated. Others have fled into exile or are too afraid to speak out against the authorities.
"Either Azerbaijan's human rights defenders are all thieves, tax evaders and spies, or something is seriously wrong with its political and judicial system. I tend to believe the latter is true," Nils Muiznieks, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, wrote this week
In these circumstances it was “impossible to hold any meaningful debate about the election or to ensure its accountability”, he added.
For most of the last two decades Azerbaijan’s importance as an oil and gas supplier has provided the country with some immunity from western criticism. But the escalating oppression of government critics is straining relations European democratic institutions to the limits.
In a highly unusual move, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe cancelled plans this week to send a monitoring mission to the parliamentary election saying the government had placed unacceptable limits on the number of observers it could deploy.
The OSCE's decision came after the European Parliament passed a resolution last month demanding that Azerbaijan end its crack down on civil society and human rights work.
Azerbaijan had dug its heels in, initiating proceedings to withdraw from the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, a forum that brings the European Parliament together with a group of former Soviet countries including Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia.
Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of Azerbaijan's presidential administration, accused the Europeans of waging an anti-Azerbaijan campaign on the eve of the elections.
The stand off could last for a long time.