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Azerbaijan - Presidential Election

Presidential election in Azerbaijan 15 October 2003

Presidential election in Azerbaijan 15 October 2003

15/10/2003 - Analysis

At the beginning of this year, Heydar Aliev, President of Azerbaijan fell ill during a live TV programme. On 4th August, whilst he was being treated for congestive cardiac insufficiency in Turkey and following that in a clinic in the USA where he had already has heart by-pass surgery in 1999, Aliev's only son Ilham was elected (101 votes in favour and one abstention) Prime Minister of the country by Parliament in replacement of Artur Rasizadé. After his election the new Prime Minister was applauded to a standing ovation by the MP's.

On 25th August 2002, 97,3% of Azerbaijanis approved by referendum 39 amendments to the Constitution that were designed, according to the authorities, to modernise basic Law and bring it into line with European norms and international treaties. In reality this enabled the introduction of a Russian type procedure into the Constitution that had enabled Boris Yeltsin to launch Vladimir Putin towards the country's presidency in December 1999. This procedure stipulates that if the Head of State leaves his functions before the end of his mandate the Prime Minister ensures the interim for three months before organising a new presidential election. The appointment of Ilham Aliev to the position of Prime Minster comprises therefore the first step towards his rise to head of State and towards the creation of a family dynasty in Azerbaijan.

Heydar Aliev, the man behind independent Azerbaijan

President Heydar Aliev, who is 80 years old, has dominated political life for three decades making many enemies but also creating deep affection amongst his countrymen, winning him the nickname of "baba" (grandfather).

This Red Army General, who entered politics during the Stalin era, served the KGB before being appointed first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. With Leonid Brejnev's protection he was the first Muslim to enter the Communist Party's political bureau from which he was excluded in 1987 by Mikhaïl Gorbatchev's perestroïka. In 1990, he withdrew to his native Nakhitchevan. Three years later Azerbaijan was independent and just as it was entrenching itself in a war against Armenia in the Nagorny Karabakh, he returned to power thanks to a coup d'etat that forced out President Aboulfaz Echilbey. The latter fled to Turkey and Heydar Aliev ensured the interim as Head of State before being elected President of the Republic on 3rd October 1993, winning 92,8% of the votes cast. Within a short time he silenced rebel officers within the army and signed the "contract of the century" with western oil companies. He re-established stability within the country by signing a cease-fire with Armenia (that has retained the control of 13% of Azerbaijani territory). Heydar Aliev considers himself an ally of the USA and his country has become the biggest receiver of billions of dollars worth of direct foreign investment per inhabitant in all the former Soviet Republics that are now independent.

However a great number of voices have been raised in the West denouncing the authoritarian attitude adopted by the President, the lack of democracy in the country, as well as numerous breaches of freedom of expression. Heydar Aliev, who is a very good political strategist, has proven that he is incapable of ensuring his country's transition towards a democratic system. Corruption is omnipresent and 40% of its inhabitants still live below the poverty line. Recently Azerbaijan was called to order by the Council of Europe for its "lack of substantial progress on fundamental issues", such as, for example the freeing of political prisoners. On 26th July, Gabil Abbasogu, chief editor of the country's main opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat was arrested for a short time. This was a move by the government to try and silence Heydar Aliev's critics. Azerbaijan was also invited by the Council of Europe to continue and accelerate democratic reform and to ensure the transparency of the future presidential election on 15th October next.

The election stakes

"I am withdrawing my candidature in favour of Ilham Aliev. He is my political successor", declared President Heydar Aliev on 2nd October in a speech read by a national TV presenter. "He is very strong candidate and a very intelligent, energetic person; I am sure that with your help he will complete what I was unable to do", he added.

Ilham Aliev went to school in Bakou and studied at the University for International Relations in Moscow (MGIMO) where he then taught for five years. From 1991 on, according to his official biography, he "did business" in Moscow and Istanbul. In 1994 he took over the chairmanship of the SOCAR, the Azerbaijan State oil company before being elected MP; he then took charge of the country's Olympic committee. His father's declining state of health encouraged him to launch himself into politics. He was then elected Vice President of the New Party of Azerbaijan (YAP), that enjoys a parliamentary majority. He has represented his father during international meetings and successfully led his party's list during the general elections but where the voting was spoiled by fraud according to international observers.

Candidate Ilham Aliev has received Vladimir Putin's support, since Russia is an unavoidable partner for Azerbaijan. The USA, for their part, recently requested the Prime Minister via the Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, to ensure the legality of the presidential election that Washington believes to of "extreme importance". Ilham Aliev's appointment in August as head of government was welcomed with relief by the USA who had invested billions of dollars in Azerbaijani oil - and who had feared that there would be a period of turbulence after the departure of President Heydar Aliev. Since Azerbaijan has been called upon to become the central point for gas and oil exports towards the world markets its political development is followed closely by all of the major oil companies and western governments.

Ilham Aliev started his electoral campaign with a round of visits to the North West of the country offering television sets to the inhabitants of villages in the Caucasus Mountains and providing keys to new flats to veterans of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The candidate was acclaimed by a crowd of three thousand people; the local authorities, who are devoted to the government in power, had granted a day's holiday to workers and school children for the occasion.

According to all likelihood the outgoing President's son will not have any problems in his accession as head of State on 15th October. The opposition is divided and silenced, the media are mostly controlled by the ruling powers and, apart from the support from Russia, Ilham Aliev can also count on the powerful help of the government machine. However real problems might well arise after his election.

Reminder of the presidential election results 11th October 1998 :

Participation : 74%

Source: Courrier des pays de l'Est, n°1 030, novembre-décembre 2002, Paris, La Documentation française, 2002
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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