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Azerbaijan votes to elect new president
Wednesday October 9, 2013 7:28 PM, IINA

Voting is under way in Azerbaijan's presidential election, a poll that seems almost certain to keep incumbent president Ilham Aliyev in power.

Polling stations in the capital Baku opened at 8:00am local time (03:00 GMT) on Wednesday, with small queues of voters waiting to cast their ballots. About five million people in the tightly-controlled former Soviet state are eligible to vote.

Aliyev appears to be so certain of his popularity that he did not put up much of an election campaign for Wednesday's election, confident that the cult of personality that has sprung up around him in recent years will power him to another election win.

As windfall oil revenues have filtered down to Azerbaijan's poorest, the opposition has found it hard to assail the government's economic policies, and the main opposition candidate, historian Jamil Hasanli, has focused on government corruption and social inequality.

But the opposition's hopes of challenging Aliyev suffered a humiliating setback when election officials refused to register its original candidate on the grounds that he had dual Russian and Azerbaijani citizenship, something explicitly banned under the constitution.

Despite the apparent predictability of the result, polling stations were busy setting up ballot boxes and voting booths on Tuesday.

"At the moment we have almost everything ready. The whole process of voting will be covered by CCTV cameras. God willing, we will start the election process tomorrow morning," said Aida Bakhshieva, a polling station manager in Baku said on Tuesday night.

With his political foes weakened by years of relentless government pressure and bitter infighting, Aliyev's government has eased tight restrictions on the opposition and allowed it to freely convene for rallies in the center of the capital.

Thomas Rymer, an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) spokesperson, said short and long-term election observers were in place across the country to oversee voting procedures and counting procedures on the day.

Aliyev inherited the presidency from his father Geidar Aliyev, who had ruled Azerbaijan first as the Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for the greater part of three decades.

The elder Aliyev fully dominated the political scene, and just a few months before his death secured his son's victory in an October 2003 presidential election that drew Western observer criticism over massive violations and triggered violent clashes between protesters and police.

Initially dismissed by foes as a pale shadow of his powerful father, Ilham Aliyev quickly consolidated his power and stifled dissent. He was re-elected by a landslide in a 2008 vote boycotted by major opposition parties and again criticised by Western observers.

He then rammed through a constitutional referendum that scrapped presidential term limits.

International rights groups have accused him of pressuring and harassing government critics. A recent Human Rights Watch report said that the clampdown on freedom of expression and assembly had intensified in the months preceding the vote.

The government, however, loosened the reins ahead of the ballot, withdrawing its long-held ban on rallies in the center of the capital. While leaving little breathing space for his domestic foes, Aliyev has expanded energy and security ties with the West, becoming an indispensable regional partner for the United States and the European Union.

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