BAKU (Reuters) – Azerbaijan’s ruling party was leading on Monday in a snap parliamentary election called by President Ilham Aliyev to consolidate power and speed economic reforms by replacing the old guard associated with his father. Candidates from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party won about 65 of 125 seats in the single-chamber parliament, Mazahir Panakhov, the Central Election Commission (CEC) head, said early on Monday after counting the results from around 110 districts. A host of small parties and independents loyal to the government took almost all the rest. The single-chamber parliament is elected every five years through voting for individual candidates in electoral districts. Aliyev, who has been in power for 17 years, called the election in December, nine months before it was formally due. Officials from his ruling party said the move was “to support the president’s policy on reforms and personnel changes”. In October, Aliyev dismissed his influential chief-of-staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and made other high-profile changes including the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister. The president criticised the pace of economic reforms and said he wanted to clear out government officials who had reached pensionable age, a move seen as intended to force out people from the era of his father, Heydar Aliyev. Sunday’s election – while not a full democratic contest – pit veteran lawmakers against young, Western-educated candidates from the same, ruling party in an effort to overhaul the legislature with more able technocrats. “I would call this an authoritarian modernisation project,” said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank. “Old Soviet-style bureaucrats are being pushed out and younger, more professional figures are being given top jobs.” Despite its energy resources, the country on the Caspian Sea struggles with unemployment, and many of the 10 million population see little benefit from the oil and gas it produces. The mainstream opposition has accused the ruling party, which has governed for almost three decades, of holding the vote in unfair conditions. “We are already observing a number of violations in polling stations where we have observers,” the opposition Musavat Party’s leader, Isa Gmbar, told Reuters. A shake-up of the governing elite is not expected to bring any change in foreign policy. Azerbaijan is not aligned to any big regional grouping such as the European Union or the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and its foreign policy is balanced between Russia, the West and Iran. Aliyev has held power since he was elected in October 2003, two months before the death of his father who held power for a decade. He won elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018, and two separate referendums scrapped a two-term presidential limit and extended the presidential term to seven years from five. He appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva first vice president, the second most powerful post after the president, in 2017. Western nations have courted Azerbaijan because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe, but various European bodies and rights groups have accused Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents. Baku denies the accusations.