Oil-rich Azerbaijan is booming and the wealth is, apparently, trickling down to its poorest – which means president Ilham Aliyev is confident of a landslide in today’s election.
Banking on a personality cult, Mr Aliyev has even loosened restrictions on the opposition, which has been allowed to hold thinly attended rallies in the heart of the capital Baku.
Mr Aliyev may look and sound like a western politician, but he is actually part of a dynasty which has shown little tolerance for dissent. He has also aligned his nation of nine million people, most of them Sunni Muslim, with the West, helping secure its energy and security interests and offset Russia’s influence in the Caspian region.
Under Mr Aliyev, Azerbaijan has basked in oil riches that have more than tripled its gross domestic product and transformed Baku into a modern city. The State Oil Fund held $34 billion as of the start of the year. With his political foes weakened by years of infighting, Mr Aliyev is all but certain to crush the main opposition challenger and eight fringe candidates in the vote.
Ali Ahmadov, executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said Mr Aliyev frequently criss-crossed the country meeting the people. “There is no need for him to engage in propaganda during the election campaign,” Mr Ahmadov said.
Mr Aliyev’s glamorous wife Mehriban, an MP who also heads a charity, has helped his popularity grow. “She has drawn the sympathy of many, including some in opposition,” said Elkhan Shahinoglu, an independent analyst.
Mr Aliyev inherited the presidency from his father, Geidar, who ruled first as Communist boss and then as a post-Soviet president for almost three decades. The son has presented himself as the candidate for stability.
Soon after the elder Aliyev lost his job in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Azerbaijan plunged into an armed conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The six-year war left ethnic Armenian forces in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and parts of Azerbaijan and turned one million Azerbaijanis into refugees.
Amid public anger over military defeats, Azerbaijan’s first president, Ayaz Mutalibov, fled in 1992. His successor, Abulfaz Elchibey, fell the following year in a rebellion that paved way for Geidar Aliyev’s return to power.
Initially dismissed by foes as a pale shadow of his now-deceased father, Ilham Aliyev quickly consolidated his power and stifled dissent. He was re-elected by a landslide in a 2008 vote boycotted by opposition parties. He then rammed through a constitutional referendum that scrapped presidential term limits.
BP, ExxonMobil and other western oil giants have invested billions of dollars to tap Azerbaijan’s oil riches.
While Mr Aliyev’s foes have compared him to autocrats who fell to the Arab Spring uprisings, experts see few parallels between the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.
“These are different societies at different levels of development,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies. “What happened in the Arab world can’t serve as a model for the ex-Soviet lands.”
As oil revenues have filtered down to Azerbaijan’s poorest, the opposition has found it hard to attack Mr Aliyev’s policies.
Gyulnara Samedova, a 47-year-old housewife, said nobody in her family was impressed by any of the challengers. “We will vote for stability,” she said.