Azeri presidential race a non-starter
By Shahin Abbasov
BAKU - Weeks to go before energy-rich Azerbaijan’s presidential vote on October 9, and a race is nowhere to be seen. No political ads adorn the capital, Baku, and no candidate spots are running on private TV channels. The incumbent strongman, 51-year-old Ilham Aliyev, is not even bothering to run an active campaign. More than any previous election, Azerbaijanis see this vote as an exercise in futility: the foregone conclusion before anyone goes to the polls is that Aliyev, in office since 2003, is assured of a third, five-year term.
“Many people are dissatisfied with inequality in the distribution of oil revenues, a lack of justice and access to good education and healthcare, but the opposition has failed to turn that into a really
massive protest movement," commented Baku-based political analyst Togrul Juvarly.
At a September 16 news conference in Baku, the main opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanli, a 61-year-old former parliamentarian and historian, focused more on the "unequal [campaign] conditions for candidates" and the likelihood of alleged "widespread vote-rigging in favor of Ilham Aliyev" than on his own policy positions. Hasanli receives backing from the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and groups.
"Jamil Hasanli is a respected and decent person, but, unfortunately, the opposition has failed to prepare for the campaign well," said analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, director of Baku's Atlas Research Center.
The National Council's original nominee was celebrity filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov. But his candidacy was rejected by election officials on the grounds that Ibragimbekov is a dual national of Russia and Azerbaijan. The prolonged struggle over whether Ibragimbekov could run or not cost the opposition valuable time, noted Juvarly.
The only real unanswered questions now concern the accuracy of the official election results, as well as turnout totals, dryly observed Shahinoglu. Western election monitors, it is worth noting, have never evaluated an Azerbaijani election to be free-and-fair.
While the race "is almost invisible for the general public", according to Anar Mammadli, director of the Baku-based Election Monitoring and Teaching Democracy Center, it is not without a few elements of drama. On September 17, for example, wolves in eastern Azerbaijan ran off with 20 sheep belonging to a shepherd busy watching an election debate on public television, Vesti.az reported.
Ordinary residents of Baku do not appear to share the shepherd's interest in politics. Only one out of 12 people interviewed recently at random by EurasiaNet.org had heard of any candidates other than President Aliyev.
Aside from Aliyev and Hasanli, the race includes five parliamentarians: Igbal Agazade (Umid [Hope] Party), non-partisan Zahid Oruj, Ilyas Ismayilov (Adalat [Justice] Party), Gudrat Hasanguliyev (United Azerbaijan Popular Front Party) and Faraj Guliyev (National Revival Movement Party).
There are also two low-profile opposition figures vying for the presidency - Social-Democrat Party leader Araz Alizade and Democrat Party chairperson Sardar Mammadov. In addition, the pro-government Modern Musavat Party chief, Khafiz Hajiyev, has presidential aspirations.
Public indifference about the election appears to extend to regional centers that have experienced notable anti-government disturbances. In Guba, a city 180 kilometers to the north where a 2012 riot led to the dismissal of the local, presidentially-appointed government head, "no campaigning or any particular sign" of the presidential election exists, commented Ramin Mahmudov, a local freelance journalist.
The same studied calm prevails in Ismyaili, where similar protests this January led to a series of arrests, including of intended opposition presidential candidate, Ilgar Mammadov.
In both places, voters, appeased by changes in local officials, do not appear inclined to stick their necks out again to demand change.
That mood, however, "will not contribute to free and fair elections", argued Mammadli, whose election watchdog is conducting long-term monitoring of 89 of Azerbaijan's 125 constituencies, most outside Baku.
As in elections past, government officials appear to be making free use of huge administrative, financial and other resources, along with media, to tilt the political playing field heavily in favor of President Aliyev, said Juvarly, the analyst.
Representatives of Aliyev's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party have announced that the president will not run a full-fledged campaign because "he does not need it". Nonetheless, he has visited over 10 regions in the last several weeks to meet with locals, as well as open new manufacturing plants, hospitals and schools. In addition, he has signed executive orders raising salaries for almost all government employees by roughly 10% and pensions by 15%.
The National Council, along with other opposition hopefuls, had intended to campaign actively in the regions, where socio-economic conditions are worse than in the capital. But as in the case in Baku, sites designated by election officials for campaign rallies have been restricted to the outskirts of regional population hubs.
A lack of campaign hoopla is conspicuously absent from television. Not a single privately run TV or radio station has registered with the Central Election Commission to broadcast paid campaign ads or talk shows and debates about the elections. On-air opportunities for candidates to express their views are limited to Public Television, which is obliged by law to provide each candidate with a total of 18 minutes of free advertising and the possibility to take part in several, hour-long debates. And unlike past elections, foreign journalists are nowhere to be seen in Baku.
Meanwhile, in sync with the start of the school year, discussions on Azerbaijan's most popular social network, Facebook (with more than one million registered Azerbaijan-based users), tend to focus on education issues rather than on the upcoming presidential elections.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.