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Unenthused, Voters In Azerbaijan Cast Ballots In Presidential Vote

  • Antoine Blua

President Aliyev took over from his ailing father just two months before the latter's death, making Azerbaijan the only post-Soviet state so far to have pursued the dynastic approach to government.

President Aliyev took over from his ailing father just two months before the latter's death, making Azerbaijan the only post-Soviet state so far to have pursued the dynastic approach to government.

BAKU -- Voting has begun in Azerbaijan's presidential election, where incumbent Ilham Aliyev faces no real challenges in the carefully orchestrated vote.

Aliyev punctuated the run-up to the election with a firebrand speech this week in which he pledged to "follow a policy of a total offensive" against neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was a brazen attempt to harness Azerbaijani nationalism to mobilize voters in this country of 8 million.

It was a curious tack for the incumbent and son of Azerbaijan's first post-Soviet president to take, since he is hardly in need of the votes against his six challengers.

Except that many observers consider low voter turnout to be the only real challenge that Aliyev faces. The main opposition bloc is boycotting the election, saying the process has been neither free nor fair. The president's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party has dismissed such accusations.

A mid-October rally of Aliyev supporters in Sumgait, about 30 kilometers from the capital
And while there is no minimum turnout required by law, a weak turnout could bolster opposition arguments against the vote's legitimacy.

On the streets of the capital, Baku, questions about the likely outcome are met with resignation.

"Everybody says the next president will be Ilham Aliyev," one Baku resident tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "He's in power now and it will be difficult to replace him."

In the weeks preceding the vote, there have been few conspicuous indications that residents here are about to elect a president.

One obvious exception is the abundance of posters in public places like on buses, encouraging voters to show up and cast their ballots.

The presence of Aliyev posters in shop windows shows that the president, who was elected in 2005 to replace his late father Heydar, enjoys some popular support.

"Probably our next president will be Ilham Aliyev -- nobody in the country has a better chance," says another passerby. "We can't say that about the opposition. Ilham Aliyev is for us. We don't need anybody else."

The main opposition bloc, Azadliq (Freedom), contends that election laws favor the Yeni Azerbaycan Party. Moreover, administration opponents say that less than a month for campaigning put them at a distinct disadvantage, since it was too short a period to introduce their programs to voters.

The opposition also complains it had no opportunity to communicate with the electorate through rallies and the media because of official strictures on public assembly and the media.

Both state-owned and private media primarily covered Aliyev's campaign, while heaping negative coverage -- or perhaps more damaging, no coverage whatsover -- of the opposition.

"Of course, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev [is on television] much more. I don't see anything, or any activity, from the opposition -- I think the opposition's activity is weak," says a Baku voter. "Most people don't support the opposition. People support the incumbent president much more."

Another resident of the capital says opposition unity on the eventual boycott came too late, and that sympathizers were left little choice as a result. The resident speculates that if the opposition had chosen a unified candidate early on, they would have stood a chance, and says "uniting now is just a show."

The vote is being observed by more than 500 international observers, mostly from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

None of Azerbaijan's previous elections has been deemed by ODIHR to have been up to international democratic standards.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.