Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Sitting President Ilham Aliyev is virtually certain to be returned to office in the October 15 presidential elections. Five main opposition parties are staging a boycott, but international observers say the polls are expected to be the most open ever held in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan's booming economy has increased Aliyev's popularity in the last five years. With no clear frontrunner among the opposition, he is expected to easily beat the six other candidates competing in the election, among them Umid chairman Igbal Agazade, Modern Musavat Party chairman Hafiz Gadjiev and Fuad Aliev, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Five opposition parties are boycotting the elections and, in a declaration released October 12, urged voters not to turn up at the polls. The document says that the election is an "imitation" of democracy designed to keep Aliyev in power. "It is impossible to talk about free expression of the will of the people. This vote is not a competition," Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli told journalists.
However, a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which visited Azerbaijan in mid-September noted improvements that, it said, "should create conditions for a good election." In fact, a key concern raised by PACE was the "presumed lack of public interest" in the upcoming election.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), meanwhile, described a lacklustre campaigning process. "Overall, the campaign atmosphere is calm and quiet, and public interest appears limited, apparently due to a perceived lack of genuine competition," the ODIHR report said. While the New Azerbaijan Party has campaigned actively for its candidate, Aliyev, opposition campaigns have been "low key."
Some complaints have been registered in the run-up to the election, including that some people have been obliged to attend New Azerbaijan Party rallies, and that the Baku authorities have interpreted "the Law on Freedom of Assembly in a restrictive manner", when opposition parties sought a venue for a pre-election rally.
The ODIHR, however, notes that, "regular televised debates on Public TV and radio have so far provided candidates with an opportunity to present their messages to voters," and that public television has attempted to restrict its coverage of the president's activities. Aliyev has even ordered all posters of himself to be removed from city streets, to avoid the appearance of a propaganda barrage.
Aliyev, the son of Azerbaijan's Soviet and post-Soviet leader Gaidar Aliyev, took office in October 2003 after his father stepped down from the presidency due to ill health. His election was followed by violent protests. Reports from the ODIHR and other monitoring organizations said the election failed to meet international standards, and that fraud and ballot stuffing were widespread. However, few expect the protests that followed the 2003 election to be repeated this week.
In the last five years, Aliyev has presided over a period of extraordinary economic growth. According to the World Bank, Azerbaijan was the fastest-growing economy in the world in 2006, with annual GDP growth of over 34%. Last year, the economy expanded by a further 26%. As well as funding a massive military build-up and the lavish lifestyles of Baku's elite, the wealth generated from Azerbaijan's oil industry has also started to trickle down to the rest of the population.
Baku has also managed to steer a course between Russia and the West, maintaining good relations with Moscow, Washington and Brussels. While in recent months Azerbaijan has appeared to lean further eastwards, stepping up gas exports to both Russia and Iran, clean presidential elections will burnish the government's reputation with in the US and Europe.
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