Azerbaijan's parliament has voted to appoint the son of ailing President Heydar Aliyev as the former Soviet Republic's new prime minister. The move could pave the way for the younger Aliyev to assume the presidency against strong objections from the opposition.
As a result of Monday's vote and constitutional amendments passed last year, 41-year-old Ilham Aliyev will automatically take over as president of Azerbaijan if his father is incapacitated or resigns.
The vote was taken during a special parliamentary session at the request of the president, whose failing health has been in the spotlight ever since he collapsed on national television in April. Early last month, the 80-year-old president returned to the hospital for undisclosed reasons and he has not been seen in public ever since.
Speaking shortly after the vote, the younger Aliyev promised to continue the economic and foreign policies instituted by his father. "I am not in favor of sudden movements," he said.
Opposition parties, which boycotted the vote, reacted angrily. The opposition has long feared President Aliyev was grooming his son for the job and the start of what they call an Aliyev dynasty.
Over the weekend, several thousand supporters of four opposition parties staged a demonstration in the capital, Baku, waving flags and calling for democratic elections to choose a new president.
A presidential election has already been scheduled for October 15 in Azerbaijan, with both father and son registered as candidates.
But the Associated Press quotes a lawmaker with one opposition party as saying he believes reports that President Aliyev died in the hospital on June 30. The lawmaker said that means the president could not have requested Monday's vote, which he called illegal.
Government officials and the president's son have strongly denied the reports. They said the president is feeling better and will return to Azerbaijan very soon.
President Aliyev's health is of concern for Azerbaijan, a country divided by rival clans, and to Western governments and oil firms interested in Azerbaijan's large reserves of crude oil.
Newly-appointed prime minister Ilham Aliyev most recently served as vice-president of Azerbaijan's state oil company.