Azerbaijan’s presidential election campaign opened officially on September 17 and will run until October 14, the day before the balloting. President Ilham Aliyev, in office since 2003, is set to win a second term of five years, on the strength of economic growth at world-record rates in Azerbaijan (exceeding 30 percent) and his indisputably high popularity rating.
Veteran opposition leaders and their respective parties, fixtures of all post-1991 elections—the Musavat Party’s Isa Gambar, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party’s (PFAP) Ali Kerimli, and the Democratic Party’s Sardar Jalaloglu—are staying out of this presidential election. Their unprecedented decision to bow out amounts to a tacit admission of being overtaken by the country’s political and economic changes. The PFPA, Musavat, and some smaller parties have created a Coordinating Center for political rallies and other joint actions (Turan, September 23), avoiding however the responsibility of participation in the political process.
The election is a pluralist one despite the veteran opposition’s abstentions. Six candidates are running against the incumbent president as well as against each other for second place. After this election, the runner-up candidate and his party will probably aspire to the role of leader of a moderate opposition, with an eye to the 2009 parliamentary elections.
The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) rapporteur for Azerbaijan, Andres Herkel, describes the pre-election atmosphere as characterized by a lack of real competition and low public interest in the political process. Herkel, an Estonian parliamentarian, ascribes this atmosphere primarily to the old opposition parties’ bowing out of the campaign. Although he has often criticized Azerbaijan’s authorities, Herkel did recognize the elements of pluralism in the current campaign during his September 18 press conference in Baku (APA, September 18), earning the disapproval of the veteran opposition’s press (Azadlig, Yeni Musavat, September 20).
In a joint statement, PACE and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Institution and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) have welcomed Azerbaijan’s decision to invite a large number of international observers to the election (Turan, September 14).
The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) registered the last two presidential candidates on September 13, ahead of the electoral campaign’s September 17 official start (www.day.az, September 13, 15). A minimum of 40,000 signatures from registered voters were required for registration of a presidential candidate by the CEC. The field of registered candidates looks as follows (Turan, September 15-22): President Ilham Aliyev, supported by the governing Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party; Igbal Agazade, a member of the Milli Majlis (parliament) and the leader of the Umid (Hope) Party; Hafiz Hajiyev, the leader of the Modern Musavat Party (an moderate offshoot of the diehard opposition’s Musavat Party); Gudrat Hasanguliyev, a member of the Milli Majlis and the leader of the United People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party (a splinter from the PFPA); Fazil Gazanfaroglu, a member of Milli Majlis and a leader of the Great Creation Party; Fuad Aliyev, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (an offshoot from the older Liberal Party, which is boycotting this election); and Gulamhusein Alibeyli, a professor of law at Baku State University and former head of the PFPA’s political council, who is in the process of creating a right-of-center party in opposition to the authorities.
As in previous elections, local administration officials may fall back on the traditional practice of inflating the incumbent authority’s margin of victory. President Aliyev warned local officialdom, repeatedly and publicly, against tampering with the vote count during the 2003 presidential election and 2005 parliamentary elections and again this year. Although the president and the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party garnered genuinely large majorities in those previous elections, some overzealous local officials resorted to ballot-box stuffing to achieve even more flattering scores in their respective districts. This traditional inclination, particularly in the countryside, remains the main challenge to the integrity of elections in Azerbaijan.
The emergence of a new generation of opposition leaders—and, correspondingly, the veteran diehards fading from the scene—are signs of a gradual maturing process in Azerbaijan’s electorate and political class. This process may well last for several more electoral cycles before taking roots in society. This presidential election cannot possibly be perfect, but it is likely to be credible.
Public confidence in Aliyev’s policies and his likely re-election rest on three main factors: First, the president’s consistently pro-Western orientation, particularly with regard to oil and gas development and exports; second, the opposition leaders’ lackluster political records and lack of convincing alternative program; and, third, the steady improvement in the conduct of electoral campaigns in Azerbaijan in recent years.
The challenge is not only for Azerbaijan to conduct a credible election, but also for international organizations and western governments to recognize evolutionary improvements in Azerbaijan’s electoral processes from one electoral cycle to another.