Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is virtually certain to be re-elected for a third term in the country's October 9 presidential elections, even with the main opposition parties uniting behind a single candidate.
A total of 10 candidates, including Aliyev, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party's candidate, registered to run for the presidency. The most credible challenger to the incumbent is Jamil Hasanli, who was nominated by a union of opposition parties, the National Coalition of Democratic Forces. Hasanli, a historian, was nominated after the coalition's original candidate, Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, was ruled out by the Central Election Commission (CEC) after failing to meet residence rules, as he also holds a Russian passport.
Despite criticism by international observers of the election process, Aliyev remains genuinely poplar with the bulk of voters, by dint of having delivered on a decade of growth and stability.
A poll carried out by the independent European Centre for Survey Research found that 88.7% of respondents who planned to vote in the upcoming election would support Aliyev, according to local press reports. Just 0.6% of the 1,550 adults polled by the centre said they would support Hasanli, with even smaller numbers saying they would vote for other candidates.
An October 1 report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) describes a "generally calm" campaign period. It also points out that the campaign has "lacked substantive debate and has focused on personality rather than concrete political platforms."
Aliyev's activities in the pre-election period have received more coverage than the opposition candidates, but his campaign office has focused mainly on Azerbaijani stability and the economic achievements of his 10 years in office. He declined to take part in televised debates leading up to October 9, instead sending a spokesman to read a written statement.
The September 19 debate saw one of the more dramatic clashes between candidates in the otherwise calm campaign period, when Modern Musavat Party candidate Hafiz Haciyev, angered by Hasanli's accusations against Aliyev, threw a bottle of water at his rival. Haciyev shouted "I will destroy you!" at Hasanli before being escorted from the studio. Hasanli later received a warning from the CEC for insulting the president. A video from the debate generated thousands of hits on YouTube.
There have been more serious concerns about the conduct of the election, with the arrest of a series of opposition activists and independent journalists in recent weeks. They include journalist and Popular Front member Parviz Gashimly, who was jailed two months for illegal possession of firearms in mid-September, putting him out of action until after the election.
Hilal Mammadov, editor of the Tayush-language Tolishi Sado newspaper was given a five-year sentence on September 27 for drug trafficking and high treason, according to Reporters Without Borders. Activists have claimed that they and their families have been the victims of threats and harassment.
The arrests sparked international criticism. "The EU notes with concern the continued pressure on a number of opposition activists, civil society and independent media, such as intimidations, arrests on dubious charges, detentions and sentencing without proper respect for international standards and rights of the accused," said a joint October 3 statement from the offices of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the European Commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Fuele.
CEC chairman Mazahir Panahov has sought to allay concerns, telling an October 2 press conference that the watchdog's aim is to conduct transparent and fair elections in accordance with international standards, according to Azernews. Over 40,000 observers, including 1,300 international observers, have registered to monitor the elections, and 4,000 webcams have been installed in polling stations across the country.
Baku made progress in the 2008 presidential election when Aliyev was re-elected with 87% of the vote, but according to the OSCE's post-election report it still did not meet international standards. One major development since then is the increased willingness of opposition activists to take to the streets - a change partly attributed to the example of the Arab Spring in several nearby Middle Eastern and North African countries. Since early 2011, there have been more demonstrations, with some activists calling on Aliyev to resign. Most have been relatively small, numbering just tens of participants, and swiftly shut down by police, but there is still the possibility of unrest after October 9 if the election is not seen as free and fair.
Security will be tightened in the days around the elections, the head of the interior ministry's central public security department, Javanshir Mammadov, told Trend news agency on October 3. Higher than usual security will be in place between October 7 and 13, with extra patrols on the day of the election, Mammadov said. Security has already been stepped up at airports, railway stations and bus stations, in the Baku metro and other potential flashpoints.
Aliyev's expected victory means continuation of the status quo in Azerbaijan. When he first came to power in 2003 following the death of his father, former president Haidar Aliyev, Azerbaijan was one of the world's fastest-growing economies as oil and gas production was ramped up. In the ten years since then, GDP per capita has risen almost ten-times from $850 to $7,850. Poverty has also been radically reduced in what is a largely agrarian economy. Despite the progress, there are lingering concerns over corruption and income inequality.
A tapering off in oil output growth also raised alarms about falling GDP growth and the country's fate once oil reserves start to dwindle. Responding to this decline, the government has embarked on a diversification programme aimed at boosting sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and IT. Recently, the non-oil sector has shored up the economy. On October 2, the Asian Development Bank raised its 2013 growth forecast for Azerbaijan to 4%, up from an April 2013 forecast of 3.1% due to strong growth in the non-oil economy.
After a fall in production at Azerbaijan's largest producing field, Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG), the field's lead operator BP came under heavy pressure from Baku to reverse the decline. In August, BP reported a 2.4% decline in production in January-June, considerably smaller than the 12% fall a year earlier, and says production will increase in 2013-14. The second phase development of the Shah Deniz field, which is due to export to European customers from 2019, will also boost production.
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