Ilham Aliyev’s Presidential Election Victory: A Symbol of Azerbaijan’s Territory Reclaimed

Thousands of Azerbaijanis eagerly lined up to cast their votes in the early presidential election held on February 7. President Ilham Aliyev, along with his wife and children, confidently performed their civic duty in a grand hall located in Xankendi, known as Stepanakert in Armenian, the largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This venue choice carried a significant message, reflecting the recent territorial gains made by Azerbaijan.

Since succeeding his father in 2003, President Aliyev has been known for suppressing dissent, cracking down on political opposition, and heavily restricting the media. However, his consistent victories in past elections, earning him no less than 85 percent of the vote, indicated that his re-election this time was also virtually guaranteed.

The Xankendi voting location itself held strong symbolism. Until recently, the building served as the administrative center for the ethnic Armenian de facto leadership of Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a war in the early 1990s, ethnic Armenian-backed separatist forces had captured this predominantly Armenian-populated region, resulting in thousands of deaths. Another conflict erupted in 2020, lasting six weeks and ending in a Russia-brokered cease-fire. Azerbaijan managed to regain most of its territory during this conflict, culminating in the full capitulation of the de facto Karabakh government.

President Aliyev viewed this victory as the pinnacle of his 20-year presidency. In December 2023, he announced the early presidential election, initially scheduled for 2025, as a testament to Azerbaijan’s post-independence history. The victory in Karabakh paved the way for elections to be held across the entire country’s territory for the first time.

While there has been limited resettlement in the reclaimed territories, it remains uncertain who would be present to vote in Xankendi. The majority of the former ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh, over 100,000 individuals, had fled after the offensive in September 2023. Only a small number of Armenians remained, occasionally featured in Azerbaijani media applauding the new leadership. Moreover, many Azerbaijanis, beyond military personnel and construction workers, have not had sufficient time to return to Xankendi.

The Central Election Commission reported an increase in registered voters in Xankendi compared to the previous presidential election in 2018. However, these figures mainly represented ethnic Azerbaijanis who were displaced and remained registered in their hometowns. Additional voters, approximately 3,000 newly registered, have been added to the electoral roll. The number of people actually voting in the polling stations set up in the territories retaken by Azerbaijan since 2020 remained unclear.

Throughout the day, state and pro-government media showcased voting taking place in and around Karabakh. However, the composition of these voters appeared to be a mix of displaced people voting from other parts of Azerbaijan and recent arrivals. Azerbaijani media featured interviews with individuals expressing gratitude to President Aliyev for creating the conditions to vote in their hometown once again, after years of absence.

President Ilham Aliyev’s victorious election not only solidifies his grip on power but also serves as a powerful symbol of Azerbaijan reclaiming its territory. It remains to be seen how this victory will shape the country’s future and the aspirations of the people residing in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

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