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Incumbent Aliyev seeks third term as Azerbaijan president

Polls have opened for presidential elections in Azerbaijan, where Ilham Aliyev is runaway favorite. In power since his father Geidar died in 2003, Aliyev portrays himself as a steady hand in a booming economy.

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Ilham Aliyev looked set for re-election on Wednesday in a vote where his main opponent alleged that Azerbaijan's recent history of political repression made a fair election impossible. Jamil Hasanly said on the last day of campaigning that despite reduced restrictions on the opposition this year, the oil-rich country still suffered from "an absence of a political and democratic climate for a free and fair election."

Aliyev himself has barely campaigned in the traditional sense, with his political allies saying it's unnecessary after a decade of successful rule. The oil-rich former Soviet country has logged consistent economic growth, with some trickle-down effect to its poorest people. The president is also widely credited with walking a savvy foreign policy tightrope - preserving largely positive relations both with neighboring Russia and the West.

"There is no need for the head of state to engage in propaganda during the election campaign," the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Ali Ahmadov, said ahead of the vote.

Besides Jamil Hasanly, eight further fringe candidates are on Azeri ballots.

Family business

The Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan for the vast majority of the past half century, albeit with a brief hiatus around the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ilham's father Geidar (sometimes written Heydar) Aliyev was the country's last Soviet leader and in 1993 returned to power in the fledgling democracy.

This family connection was used in a US diplomat's assessment of the Azeri president, released by the WikiLeaks whistleblowing organization, which sought a comparison with a famous Hollywood dynasty.

The cable likened Ilham Aliyev's calculating international approach to Michael Corleone, the son who became "The Godfather" in the course of the famous trilogy once his fictitious father died. However, the same cable to Washington also said Aliyev's more merciless treatment of domestic opposition was more reminiscent of Michael's hot-headed older brother Sonny.

In 2009, Azeri voters decided at a referendum to abolish term limits for presidents - a measure Aliyev had endorsed ahead of the vote - meaning the president could stand for a third time in this Wednesday's vote.

In Azerbaijan's 2008 presidential election, which garnered criticism from international observers, Aliyev won just over 87 percent of the vote.

Azerbaijan is a major supplier of oil and natural gas to the European Union, still heavily reliant on Russian fossil fuels. The country borders Russia, Iran and Turkey, and rights groups like Amnesty International allege that Aliyev's behavior is not closely scrutinized by the West beacuse of the strategic importance of positive ties with the government in Baku.

msh/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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