No surprises as president's party wins Azerbaijan elections

By bne IntelliNews November 8, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

The November 7 elections to Azerbaijan's parliament ended as expected with a majority for the Yeni Azerbaijan Party, headed by President Ilham Aliyev.

Yeni Azerbaijan took 71 of the 125 seats in Azerbaijan's single-chamber parliament, according to preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission (CEC). Several pro-presidential parties among the 23 parties that contested the elections have also taken seats, creating a stable ruling majority.

Opposition parties say the elections were rigged, citing difficulties in registering candidates and the government's decision to cut short the campaigning period to under a month. With Yeni Azerbaijan's victory a foregone conclusion, some opposition parties did not field candidates and voter apathy kept turnout at just 50.14%.

Even the September 8 decision by two main opposition parties - Musavat and the Popular Front - to join forces had little impact. Other contenders including the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, the Karabakh bloc and the Bloc for Human, also gained only a small share of the vote.

Business as usual

All this means it's business as usual in Azerbaijan, with no interruption to the rule of Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father Gaidar Aliyev in 2003. "The new parliament with the expected pro-presidential make-up is unlikely to have any real influence on Azerbaijan's political life; as before, the legislative is to be a rubber-stamping body for President Ilham Aliyev's decisions," says an analyst note from IHS Global Insight. "The obedient legislature will provide political stability under Aliyev's authoritarian rule. Although a setback for Azerbaijani society, it is a positive factor for western energy companies operating in the oil and gas rich country."

Opposition activists say that a number of candidates were intimidated by the authorities, although this has been denied by the Azeri authorities. Observers also appear divided, with the CIS countries' mission and Turkpa (Turkic States Parliamentary Assembly) saying the elections were democratic, while the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODHIR) pointed out numerous problems in the run-up to the vote.

The opposition also cites several other problems, in particular difficulties in registering their candidates. According to an October 20 pre-election report from the OSCE/ODHIR election observation mission, "there is a marked discrepancy between the number of candidates who were registered from the ruling party, opposition and independent nominations."

The campaign period was curtailed to less than one month, and 10 days shorter than for the 2005 elections, which is believed to have been a move to prevent the opposition from rallying popular support. New restrictions on travel to Azerbaijan were introduced at short notice, including an end to the practice of issuing visas on entry to the country. This is expected to be reversed after the elections.

Oil for accomodation

Opposition activists frequently complain that they are ignored by western governments who have been vocal in their support for the opposition in other CIS countries such as Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. "A number of opposition politicians have accused the West of accommodating Aliyev's authoritarian regime in exchange for lucrative energy contacts, including ensuring Azeri participation in the European Union-backed Nabucco gas pipeline project," says IHS Global Insight.

When a consortium of western oil companies led by BP won the contract to develop the offshore Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli in 1994, the deal was dubbed the "Contract of the Century". As the EU countries seek to diversify their energy sources away from Russia, Azerbaijan is an important supplier of oil via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and is likely to become the main initial source of gas if the Nabucco pipeline project gets off the ground, thus making stability in the country a priority for its international partners.

However, in the longer term, this stability is looking less certain. Azerbaijan is expected to reach peak oil production by 2020. When oil revenues start to decline, and economic growth in the hydrocarbons-based economy starts to tail off, dissatisfaction with the kleptocratic ruling elite is likely to increase - unless some real benefits are felt by the population, a report from the International Crisis Group report warned in September.

Cracks are already beginning to show. The world's fastest growing economy in 2006, Azerbaijan's annual GDP growth has dwindled to just 4% growth expected this year, falling further to 2.5% in 2011, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

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