BAKU, Azerbaijan - Voters in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation of Azerbaijan are set to cast ballots in a snap presidential election Wednesday that is all but certain to extend the rule of the country's long-serving leader by another seven years.
President Ilham Aliyev is expected to win the vote by a landslide. Leading opposition parties boycotted the race, leaving seven token challengers. Opinion surveys have put support for the incumbent at over 80 per cent.
Aliyev, 56, has led Azerbaijan since 2003. He succeeded his father, Geidar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan first as Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for the greater part of three decades.
Like his father before him, the son has cast himself as a custodian of stability, an image that resonates with many in a nation where memories of the chaos and turmoil that accompanied the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union are still fresh.
Since Aliyev won the last election in 2013 with 85 per cent of the vote, Azerbaijan's Constitution has been amended to extend the presidential term from five to seven years. Aliyev's critics denounced the 2016 plebiscite as effectively cementing a dynastic rule.
The presidential election that had been due in the fall was moved up to April. Officials said the move was made because the country would be busy with various high-profile events at the end of 2018.
Aliyev has allied the majority Shia Muslim nation of almost 10 million with the West, helping to protect its energy and security interests and to counterbalance Russia's influence in the strategic Caspian region.
At the same time, his government has long faced criticism in the West for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.
The opposition has denounced the election as lacking a viable challenger. Most of the seven candidates seeking to unseat Aliyev ran for president in the past but never pulled in more than 2 per cent of the vote.
"We will urge the people to resist that game being played by the authorities," said Jamil Hasanli, the head of the National Council of Democratic Forces of Azerbaijan, a leading opposition movement.
However, Aliyev's critics have a limited following in Azerbaijan; only a few thousand people attended recent opposition rallies.
The public indifference stems from Azerbaijan's relative stability under Aliyev, who has used the nation's oil riches to transform the once-gritty capital, Baku, into a shining metropolis. Some of the oil wealth has trickled down to reach even the poorest residents, helping secure Aliyev's rule.
"People want to see the preservation of political stability, the deepening of economic reforms and an even more active fight against corruption," Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the independent Atlas Research Center in Baku, said.
He added that Aliyev has dismissed some of the worst government ministers and the public hopes he will continue getting rid of corrupt officials.
"Social problems, including low wages, remain, but most people think that political stability is the most important thing," Sahinoglu said.
Samir Aliyev, a Baku-based independent economic expert who is not related to the president, said that while the opposition boycott may affect turnout, most voters focus on economic and social issues and don't pay much attention to the opposition.
"People are mostly worried about their material situation, wages and inflation," he said.
Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow.