Azerbaijan's two most prominent opposition parties are boycotting the snap presidential election scheduled for February 7, making it the sixth election in a row that they will be sitting out.
After President Ilham Aliyev unexpectedly called the early poll, there was next to no expectation that his most prominent rivals would run against him, given the short timeframe before the election date, Aliyev's popularity after retaking Karabakh, and, most obviously, the opposition's election boycott streak of recent years.
On December 16, Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party (PFAP) decided at its convention not to field a presidential candidate. The Musavat party told reporters a day earlier that it had reached the same decision.
"We are for free, fair, democratic elections, and we will keep demanding such a fair contest," Popular Front chairman Ali Karimli told the convention. "But we will not participate in this circus, this fakery in the name of elections, which is an imitation of democracy."
PFAP took the additional step of urging citizens not to cast votes while Musavat did not.
Aliyev has been in power since 2003. His current, fourth, term was set to expire in early 2025. All of his re-election victories have been by comically wide margins in polls held with nothing but the most superficial attributes of electoral democracy.
The Popular Front and Musavat are considered the top opposition parties in Azerbaijan's embattled political space. The two, as well as the National Council of Democratic Forces - an umbrella opposition group of which Popular Front is a member, boycotted the last presidential election, in 2018, as well as the 2008 presidential poll, and parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2020. They also boycotted municipality elections in 2014 and 2019 but allowed their members to run as independents.
In the last presidential election held with opposition participation, in 2013, the opposition National Council (of which Musavat was part) fielded a unified candidate, historian Jamil Hasanli. He won second place with 5.5 percent of the vote.
In all the elections that the opposition boycotted - including the snap parliamentary election in 2020 for which there was some hope among civil society for something resembling legitimate polls - the argument has largely been that they don't want to participate in the authoritarian regime's imitation of democracy.
Before the opposition started boycotting the polls, "We always knew that there was a good chance of election fraud by the authorities, and that we would not win the elections. But at least we used to take advantage of the election periods to conduct our own campaign and to expose the regime," Ilham Huseyn, a member of the presidium of the Popular Front, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service.
"Now, they have arrested some of the journalists who were supposed to cover the election campaign and expose election fraud, and one of the main figures of the opposition camp, Tofig Yagublu, was arrested on the most shameful charges."
In every presidential election, there are a handful of candidates other than Aliyev. They are usually members of the rubber-stamp parliament and or heads of small satellite parties. During the campaigns, they praise the performance of the government and president.
On December 19, the Central Election Commission approved its first candidate for the February poll: President Aliyev, nominated by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.