Azerbaijani politicians and political parties are actively discussing amendments to the Election Code. These changes will lay a foundation for the conduct of elections from this year on. The parliament has discussed and approved these changes: henceforth, the campaign period for the presidential elections will be 75 days instead of 120; state television will no longer be available for campaigning; and the number of signatures needed to nominate candidates has been decreased from 45,000 to 40,000. Opposition parties seemed unhappy about the changes.
Whether by coincidence or planning, the next presidential elections in Azerbaijan are set for October 15, the same day as five years ago. On that day in 2003 then Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev was elected president, and a new era in Azerbaijani politics was launched.
Today, the political scene in the country looks rather bleak, and experts predict an easy win for the incumbent president. Opposition parties in the country have not made any substantial breakthrough in terms of gaining more popularity among the population. They remain marginalized and out of touch with reality. The growing economy and the fast developing infrastructure in the country allow the government to claim success and to weaken further the campaign message of the opposition. Nobody doubts President Aliyev’s popularity among the voters. Yet, the real question is whether this popularity will give the authorities the confidence they need to conduct the elections in a way that will avoid international criticism.
Mubariz Gurbanli, a member of parliament and deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, claims that the forthcoming elections will be “the best ones in the history of the country” (www.day.az, June 20). Gurbanli added that a lot of development projects were going on in the country, that the population would express its appreciation for this on election day and that no other candidate would be able to compete with President Aliyev. It is expected that the ruling party will nominate its chairman, President Aliyev, for re-election at its second congress in the coming months. Some political parties and individuals, however, are already rushing to do so. Minor pro-government party Ana Veten held its congress last week and nominated President Aliyev for re-election, as did the Party of Social Welfare.
Members of the opposition, meanwhile, are struggling with unity and a common strategy, a typical problem for an election year. Some of them have already decided to compete in the elections, while others are still playing with the idea of a boycott. Musavat, one of the largest and oldest parties in the country, will once again nominate its perennial chairman Isa Gambar for president. Gambar has been the chairman of the party since 1992 and in the last elections came in second with 14 percent of the total votes. Today, Gambar claims that his party is the most popular in Azerbaijani society (www.day.az, June 20).
Co-chairman of the Social-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Araz Alizadeh, claims that “all opposition parties together will gather no more than 20 to 25 percent of the votes” (www.day.az, June 14). The main opposition block, Azadliq, which unites three opposition parties, is thinking of boycotting the elections. A boycott is usually a sign of either a lack of hope or lack of interest. Campaigning is not an easy task, and in the past political parties have used boycotts to avoid hard work and then put all the blame for the elections on the unfair electoral system. The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan is also leaning toward a boycott (Trend News Agency, June 19). Nevertheless, the independent daily Zerkalo reported on June 21 that even these two parties, which lean toward a boycott, do not want to unite their political efforts.
The authorities do not seem to be moved by the possible boycott. Ali Hasanov, the head of the political department of the president’s office, said that “Non-participation of one or two candidates does not mean that the elections are boycotted. There will be many candidates running anyway” (www.day.az, June 14). Indeed, minor opposition parties have already expressed an interest in contesting the elections.
Nobody doubts that the country’s powerful economic growth will leave the opposition no chance of winning the elections. The real task is to avoid the post-election tension and violence that has taken place in neighboring Armenia and Georgia. Musavat has already requested permission for street rallies. The Baku Mayor’s office has turned down the request. Gurbanli is convinced that Azerbaijan will avoid the problems that have occurred in other South Caucasus republics. “In Armenia there were no elections. There was a coup. A violent coup. In Georgia the elections had many problems and were harshly criticized. In Azerbaijan we will make sure that the elections are held in accordance with international standards, and nobody will doubt the results” (www.day.az, June 20).