Eighty-year-old Heider Aliyev, living out his last days in a clinic in the United States, has anointed his 41-year-old son, Ilham, as heir apparent.

Now, backed up by a glitzy election campaign and the government's considerable resources, observers say Aliyev junior's victory is a foregone conclusion.

But the real drama is likely to begin after the vote - the opposition is promising street protests if Aliyev junior wins.

Anti-regime plots

Some analysts say powerful clans inside the ruling regime will soon start plotting against their new, inexperienced leader.

"The election is a fait accompli, everybody knows that," said a western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "What really counts is what happens afterwards."

Azerbaijan's political future matters not just to the eight million people of this former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea.

Western oil companies, too, are hoping for stability. They are building a multi-billion-dollar pipeline which will turn the country into a strategic crossroads for oil exports to world markets.

Armed conflict

Also, an armed conflict is still festering between Azerbaijan and its neighbour Armenia over the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Heider Aliyev is gravely ill in a US
clinic 

Observers fear internal political convulsions could lead to a renewal of hostilities, destabilising the whole region.

An eight-strong field is running in the elections, but the real contest is likely to be between Ilham Aliyev and two opposition challengers - Isa Gambar and Etibar Mamedov.

Aliyev junior has a strong pitch to make to voters. On the campaign trail he can point to the booming economy and the political stability bequeathed by his father.

Political lightweight

"The people support the policies of Heidar Aliyev," he said at a campaign rally last week. "They want stability, peace and economic growth and I am sure that is what will happen."

But Ilham Aliyev's candidacy has its weaknesses. Critics say he is a political lightweight and point to his youthful reputation as a playboy who prefers parties and casinos to affairs of state.

He is also identified by many voters with rampant corruption.

While officials get rich on oil money, a quarter of Azerbaijan's children are malnourished because of poverty, according to United Nations figures.

Corruption

The opposition is hoping to exploit this. "Our victory is clear," Gambar said on Sunday. "It is clear to everyone that the people of Azerbaijan do not want to follow the path of Heidar Aliyev, the path of corruption."

Azerbaijan is rich in oil

Although Azerbaijan has no reliable opinion polls, observers give Ilham Aliyev a slim lead. The opposition is widely mistrusted and few people want the disruption to their lives which is expected if power changes hands.

Rashad, a young professional in the capital, Baku, is typical.

"I am backing Ilham Aliyev," he said. "I know it's absurd but I remember the chaos when these people who are now in opposition were in power in the early 1990s."

Protests

The government promises a clean vote, but complaints are stacking up about official intimidation of opposition activists and plots to rig the ballot.

If there is a whiff of impropriety about Wednesday's vote. Opposition parties are already saying they will mobilise their supporters to protest against the results, with the worrying prospect of violent clashes with police.

The newly-minted president will have another problem too -dealing with cliques within his own administration who have little respect for Ilham Aliyev and covet his job.

"I think Ilham Aliyev will have a honeymoon period of a few weeks and then the problems will start," said the western diplomat.