Oil-rich Azerbaijan voted in a presidential election Wednesday that looks certain to see strongman 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.
"Like in other countries, the presidential elections in Azerbaijan are being conducted in a lively atmosphere," electoral commission head Mazahir Panakhov said as voting began.
The 51-year-old Aliyev 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 Caspian Sea nation of 9.5 million people for the preceding 10 years.
Aliyev was re-elected in 2008 with 89 percent of the vote in a poll which 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 have soared in the past decade, with Azerbaijan becoming an increasingly important energy supplier to Europe and an ally of NATO.
At one polling station in Baku -- a capital which has undergone a glitzy building boom in recent years -- voters waited in silence to cast their ballots under an Azerbaijani flag.
"Naturally I am going to vote for our current president Ilham Aliyev," said Rizvan Samedov, a 25-year-old marketing director.
"Under his leadership the country has really developed," Samedov said.
But not all said their country was on the right track.
"I have lost faith in the current leadership," said Samaya Alekperova, a teacher, adding that she would vote for the united opposition candidate.
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.
Rights groups accuse the authorities of an intense clampdown on dissent ahead of the election, 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," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Director.
Aliyev is expected to continue treading a cautious path between the West and Russia after his expected victory, ensuring that Azerbaijan remains a key energy source for Europe and a U.S. ally while not upsetting its giant northern neighbor Russia.
At home however, with oil production peaking and new natural gas fields yet to come online, analysts say that Aliyev may have a harder time keeping rising anger over corruption and inequality in check.
Polls will close at 1900 local time (1400 GMT) and the first partial preliminary results are expected out overnight.
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