Voters in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation of Azerbaijan cast ballots today in an early presidential election 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.
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 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 led the country since 2003, when he succeeded his father. Surveys put support for him at over 80 percent. Since Aliyev won the last election in 2013, 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.
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