, BAKU, Oct 9 – Azerbaijan is voting Wednesday in a presidential election that looks certain to see strongman president Ilham Aliyev seal a third term, with critics claiming a widespread crackdown on his foes ahead of the poll.
Despite refusing to campaign publicly, Aliyev appears a shoo-in as the authorities exert an iron grip over most media in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet state.
The 51 year old leader came to power in a 2003 vote after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist era boss who ruled the oil rich Caspian Sea nation for the 10 years before.
Aliyev was re-elected in 2008 with 89 percent of the vote in a poll Western observers refused to call free and fair.
Now, after a disputed 2009 referendum allowed Aliyev to run again, opinion polls ahead of the vote put him on over 80 percent as he bids to extend his family’s decades long hold on power against nine other candidates.
Aliyev has skipped televised debates and rejected public rallies. Those backing him argue that his record speaks for itself.
Fuelled by billions of petrodollars, living standards in the mainly Muslim nation of 9.5 million people have soared in the past decade, with Azerbaijan becoming an increasingly important energy supplier to Europe and NATO ally.
Despite the muted campaign with candidate posters restricted and little mention of the vote in the media official turnout is expected to be robust. Some 5 million people are eligible to vote.
Rights groups accuse the authorities of an intense clampdown on dissent ahead of the polls, including the jailing of scores of critics on charges the opposition say are trumped up.
“It’s hard to keep up with the sheer number and the speed at which dissenters are being persecuted at the moment,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director, said on the eve of the poll.
During a rare outburst of public discontent earlier this year, authorities used force to suppress a spate of anti-government protests and have since passed tough legislation that some say curbs online criticism.
Normally fragmented, Azerbaijan’s weakened opposition much of which boycotted the 2008 poll in May seemed primed for a genuine challenge after rallying around a single candidate, but momentum has stuttered.
Initially they chose Oscar winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov. But when his candidacy was rejected by authorities over his dual Russian citizenship, the opposition switched to historian and former lawmaker Jamil Hasanli.
Hasanli, who has attracted thousands of supporters to rallies but is only expected to poll in the single digits, has pledged to step down after two years if elected and switch Azerbaijan to a parliamentary system.
Causing a stir in televised debates against the other eight challengers to Aliyev, Hasanli, 61, has accused the president of massive corruption, and said only vote-rigging and a skewed playing field will see Aliyev re-elected.
“If the elections were free, democratic and honest then I have no doubt that I would win,” Hasanli told AFP ahead of the vote.
Aliyev for his part is expected to continue treading a cautious path between the West and Russia, ensuring that Azerbaijan remains a key energy source for Europe and US ally while not upsetting its giant northern neighbour.
At home however, with oil production peaking and new natural gas fields yet to come online, analysts say that Aliyev will have a harder time keeping rising anger over corruption and inequality in check.
Polls will close at 1900 local time (1400GMT) and the first partial preliminary results are expected out overnight.