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European monitors says Azerbaijan’s election took place in a restrictive environment

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Thursday that Azerbaijan’s presidential election took place in a restrictive environment with no real political competition.

With just over 93% of the ballots counted, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev secured more than 92% of the votes, the head of the Central Election Commission, Mazahir Panahov, said early Thursday. Aliyev’s three main challengers trailed far behind and conceded the race, congratulating him, the Interfax Azerbaijan news agency reported.

Aliyev had called an early vote while enjoying a surge in popularity just months after his forces swiftly reclaimed the Karabakh region from ethnic Armenian separatists who had controlled it for three decades. He is now heading into another seven-year term in office.

The election Wednesday, “took place in a restrictive environment and… was marked with the stifling of critical voices,” said Artur Gerasymov, Special Co-Ordinator and leader of the OSCE group of election observers in Azerbaijan.

Aliyev was “not meaningfully challenged,” and because of limitations on independent media, civil society and other political parties, the contest was “devoid of genuine pluralism,” Gerasymov said. He added that the “near absence of analytical reporting” in Azerbaijani media hampered voters’ ability to make an informed choice.

Analysts suggested that 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.

Aliyev, 62, has been in power for more than 20 years, succeeding his father who