19/09/2008 - Analysis
On 28th July last the Central Electoral Commission announced that the next presidential election would take place on 15th October in Azerbaijan. In line with the Constitution the date has to be set 75 days before the end of the outgoing Head of State's term in office and the election will take place on the 3rd Wednesday of the last month of the President in office. 4,834,584 voters are being called to ballot. The Central Electoral Commission has decided to make this day a bank holiday.
On 2nd June last the Milli Majlis (the only Chamber in Parliament) modified the electoral law in application at present, 100 votes in favour, 3 against and one abstention. This amendment brought the obligatory number of signatures needed to be able to run as candidate for the supreme office down to 40,000 (the figure had been 45,000 previously), it also modified the conditions set for the appearance in the media by the candidates and reduced the electoral campaign down from 120 to 75 days – a decision the authorities say is necessary since it is similar to the length of time in application in many countries (72 days in Hungary, 45 in Romania, 90 in Serbia and Kazakhstan for example).
"It is important to improve the electoral law but it is necessary to show real political will and ensure that we all – authorities, opposition and civil society – adhere to democratic values," indicated the Venice Commission which was consulted with regard to the new electoral law. The Commission said it was pleased that electoral fraud, the infringement of the anonymity of the vote, and ballot stuffing together with the falsification of electoral documents were now recognised as criminal acts. The Centre for Election Monitoring, an NGO that works to improve the electoral system and the democratisation of society did however say that unfortunately the reforms requested by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) had not been adopted, notably with regard to the creation of electoral commissions.
The Aliyev Dynasty
In power since 2003, the year in which he succeeded his father, Heydar, who had been in office since 1993, Ilham Aliyev is the favourite in the presidential election on 15th October. The man who was perceived by many political analysts in 2003 as a simple a figure of transition has succeeded in asserting himself during his term in office as head of the country and within his own majority thereby continuing his father's policies. In Azerbaijan political power lies in the hands of the President of the Republic. In 2005 Ilham Aliyev also replaced his father as head of the party New Azerbaijan (YAP) founded by his father in 1992.
Several international organisations including the Council of Europe have regularly criticised the slow rate of democratisation in Azerbaijan and the lack of respect for Human Rights by the authorities. On 29th May last the USA published a report in which it observed a worsening in the Human Rights situation since 2007 in Azerbaijan. "The presidential election is important for Azerbaijan and for the EU. It will be the first that follows the signature of the action plan between Baku and Brussels and it will comprise the basis on which future relations will be founded," indicated Peter Semneby, EU representative for the Southern Caucasus. "It is vital to create equal conditions for all the candidates in the election, notably with regard to media access," he added saying that Brussels considered the freedom of the media a vital issue and that it was extremely concerned about the fate of the journalists who were imprisoned in the country. Three of them are behind bars at present: Ganimat Zakhidov, editor in chief of Azadliq, Sakit Zakhidov, a satirical journalist and brother of the latter and Einulla Fatullaev, editor in chief of the newspaper Real Azerbaijan.
"The presidential election is an opportunity for Azerbaijan to prove that the country is a democratic leader in the region and to increase its influence in the world," maintains Anne Derse, US Ambassador in Baku. 450 OSCE observers will be present to monitor how the presidential election is run on 15th October.
Ilham Aliyev has focussed his electoral campaign on his economic successes: he says that in five years he has increased the country's economic growth by 96%, and that poverty has diminished from 49% to 16%, and that 650,000 jobs have been created. Azerbaijan's natural resources (notably oil) are indeed the reason for the GDP rising to 24.7% in 2007 (16.7% in 2008). Oil represents over 50% of the GDP, 60% of the State's budget and nearly all of export incomes (95%). The oil boom has enabled the President to develop infrastructures and increase salaries. The rise in public spending has led to a rise in inflation that is forecast to reach 23% in 2008. Financial analysts are however forecasting a decrease next year (18%). The future Head of State will have to succeed in finding the means to maintain economic growth in an international context that is due to be affected by a sharp rise in raw materials.
Finally Ilham Aliyev, who maintains cordial relations with Russia as well as the Western States, will also probably take advantage of the present tension between Georgia and Russia, whereby any external threat to the country will rally the population around its leader.
On 2nd August last 650 New Azerbaijan delegates unanimously appointed Ilham Aliyev as their leader for the presidential election. "Over the last five years I have tried to be worthy of the people's confidence who will grant me its confidence during the next election. And if I am re-elected I shall defend the national interests of Azerbaijan and I shall work to strengthen the State," declared Ilham Aliyev adding, "the Presidential election must be fair and transparent and it will be so." On 6th August last he ordered the withdrawal of all of his portraits from the streets of the towns where they had been positioned. "They are not necessary. I feel bad with regard to these portraits which I do not need."
The outgoing President has the support of the two government parties which are Ana Vatan (Motherland) led by Fazil Aghamaly and the Social Prosperity Party, as well as the Social Well-Being Party. Although Ilham Aliev is due to win the next presidential election comfortably the number of votes he wins will allow him to gauge his legitimacy.
The Presidential Election
Apart from the outgoing Head of State, nine other people are running in the presidential election (not everyone has yet registered with the Central Electoral Commission):
1 Mais Gulaliev, leader of the Green Party;
2 Gudrat Hasanguliev, chair of the Popular Front of United Azerbaijan;
3 Hafiz Hajiev, chair of the Muasir Musavat Party;
4 Fouad Aliev, chair of the Liberal Democratic Party;
5 Igbal Agazade, chair of the Umid Party (Hope);
6 Gulamhusein Aliev, former chair of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan who resigned on 8th August so that he could run as an independent;
7 Alisa Agaiev, director of the Centre for Legal, Economic and Social Research;
8 Sevinj Gulieva, a nurse at the hospital of Sumgayit;
9 Fazil Gazanfaroghlu, chair of the Grand Creation Party, supported by Adalat led by Ilyas Ismavilov;
10 Ilham Aliev, outgoing President.
The opposition is greatly divided and weakened because of the personal ambitions of its various leaders. None of them to date has shown that they are able to rally support beyond their own camp. It is true that the opposition forces have also been submitted to heavy pressure on the part of the authorities, that access to the media is extremely difficult for them and they suffer from a severe lack of funding. The high number of candidates seems to be an additional guarantee of success on the part of the outgoing President.
"It is our goal to consolidate the position of the party in society. If we succeed in raising the awareness of part of the population to our programme during this presidential election then we shall have won," declared Mais Gulaliyev, chair of the Green Party. "We are not fighting to win the election," he added saying that a result between 7% and 10% would be a major victory.
Contrary to the ecologist party a great number of political parties have chosen to protest against the presidential election, which they qualify as anti-democratic, by boycotting it. Isa Gambar, Ilham Aliyev's main opponent in the last presidential election on 17th October 2003 (he won 14% of the vote in comparison with 76.80% for Ilham Aliyev) and chairman of the Musavat Party (Equality) has decided to withdraw from the race. "Participating in an election in the present conditions has no sense," he said, denouncing an unfair competition. "Azerbaijan is not a democratic country, the political forces are not equal, the amendments to the electoral law are reactionary and the possibility of transforming the regime into a democracy is impossible," says the opposition party. Musavat wants the opposition to be represented equally alongside the ruling power in the electoral commissions. Ali Oruiyev, leader of the National Independence Party made a choice similar to that of the Classic Popular Front led by Mirmakhmud Miraliogla, the Open Society Party founded by Rasul Guliev in April 2007 led by Akif Shahbzov, the Democratic Party led by Sardar Jalaloglu, the Civil Solidarity Party, the Establishment Party, the National Independence Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Public Forum for Azerbaijan led by Eldar Namazov and Azadliq (Freedom) which rallies the People's Front of Azerbaijan led by Ali Kerimli, the Citizens', Development and National Unity Party.
The New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) perceives the boycott as the expression of fear on the part of some of the opposition in challenging Ilham Aliyev. Many international observers such as Heikki Talvitie, chair of the OSCE and Peter Semneby the EU's representative in the Southern Caucasus regret the opposition parties' decision.
There has been an event of note however: on the initiative of Fouad Mustafaiev of the Popular Front who started negotiations this summer, several parties – the Liberal Party, the Popular Front, the Civil Solidarity Party, Musavat and the Public Forum for Azerbaijan – rallied together within a new structure, the Democratic Elections Centre. Together these parties signed a document on 5th September in which they recognised the illegitimate nature of the presidential election on 15th October. The National Independence Party, the Open Society Party and the Classic Popular Front refused to join the initiative.
Political analysts are however doubtful about how long a union of the opposition parties can last. "The opposition leaders are unable to put their personal ambitions to one side and to come together," says political expert Rasim Musabayov. "The opposition has come too late. It is not the time for discussion. The opposition has no resources, no financial means and no support on the part of the population," declared Zardusht Alizade, a political analyst. Leyla Aliyeva, another political expert is more confident and believes that the opposition's union may have an effect on the election and might even create an alternative. "The problem is that the opposition does not have any real social base," she says. "In most countries the rightwing opposition is supported by the farmers, businessmen and religious groups. But this is not the case in Azerbaijan where it remains distant from religious groups to avoid being suspected of Islamism. As a consequence the opposition has no social base and has no support from the people? The leftwing forces experience the same problem," maintains Rasim Musabayov.
According to a poll undertaken by the Independent Research Centre and published on 2nd September last 88.9% are due to turn out to vote on 15th October. 78.3% of them say they will vote in favour of Ilham Aliyev. A majority of those interviewed say they are confident in the democratic nature of the election (70.9%) and nearly everyone believes that they live in a stable country both as far as politics and socio-economics issues are concerned (91.7%). When interviewed about the issues they believe the most important 68.2% quote the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh (Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia since 1993 after a war between Baku and Yerevan; since then the two countries have not succeeded in signing a peace agreement), 59.1% the fight against inflation, 52.2% salaries and pensions and 487% employment.
The high number of candidates and the lack of real alternative to the power in place should enable Ilham Aliyev, who is extremely popular amongst the population, to win the presidential election easily on 15th October next.
Reminder of the Presidential Election results -5th October 2003 in Azerbaijan
Turn out: 71.50%
Source: Central Electoral Commission of Azerbaijan