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Boycott Expected To Reduce Turnout In Azerbaijani Presidential Election


A man leaves a polling booth at a polling station in Baku.

A man leaves a polling booth at a polling station in Baku.

(RFE/RL) -- Voters across Azerbaijan are casting ballots for Azerbaijan's next president. Reports say voting began quietly, with an opposition boycott expected to reduce the overall voter turnout.

Political analysts say the vote is almost certain to return Ilham Aliyev to office for a second five-year term, a result that would extend the dynastic rule of the Aliyev family in the oil-producing state.

In fact, the real question among political analysts in Baku is not who will win, but rather the size of the victory margin for Aliyev, the 46-year-old incumbent.

By midday, voter turnout officially totaled about one-third of the 4.8 million registered voters. In Azerbaijan, there is no minimum turnout needed to make the vote official. In the 2003 presidential election, official voter turnout was 71 percent.

Besides Aliyev, there are six other candidates. All of the main opposition leaders and their parties are boycotting the election, however.

Laws Favor Governing Party

The leading opposition bloc, Azadliq (Freedom), said election laws favor the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party. Another concern is that campaigning started less than a month before the election. Opposition leaders say that campaign period was too short to introduce its programs to voters.

President Ilham Aliyev at a polling station in Baku
Opposition leaders also say curbs on democracy and media freedom have made participation in the election pointless. Instead, they have called on voters to stay at home.

Human rights groups have backed the opposition's complaints. Meanwhile, opposition politicians and journalists in Azerbaijan say some Western governments have toned down their criticism of Azerbaijan's democratic shortcomings for fear of losing a strategic ally and access to Azerbaijan's vast Caspian Sea oil reserves.

But the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party has dismissed the opposition's allegations. It says Aliyev's popularity is unassailable, largely because of an oil boom that has given Azerbaijan one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, despite the global financial crisis.

Still, apathy about the election can be felt on the streets of the capital.

Baku residents interviewed by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service suggest that ordinary citizens aren't very interested in the election and that Aliyev remains the only known candidate.

Strong Economy

For voters who did cast ballots early today, the relatively strong state of Azerbaijan's economy seems to be a deciding factor.

"Everything is OK [in our country] today," said one man. "I want Azerbaijan to develop further."

But voters who are trying to make ends meet on a fixed income say growing concerns about the future of the economy brought them out to vote -- despite opposition calls for a boycott.

"I want life to be better and pensions to increase," said another voter.

But at polling station No. 26 on the outskirts of the capital, Baku, pensioner Farida Akhundova said she was planning to vote for Aliyev because he has continued the same policies as his father, who dominated political life in Azerbaijan for 30 years.

In 2003, Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar, a former local KGB chief who ruled Azerbaijan for a total of more than 30 years -- first as Communist Party boss during the Soviet Union and then as president after Azerbaijan gained independence.

In fact, with his father's portrait still displayed prominently across the country, the official election results in 2003 showed Aliyev with 76 percent of the ballot. The opposition said those results were faulty, but their large-scale protests were crushed violently by police.

400 International Observers

Observers will watch closely for an initial assessment by the chief international election watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), on October 16.

Janez Lenarcic, head of the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), says some 400 observers are working in teams across the country.

Political analysts in Baku say a smooth vote, despite flaws during the campaign, could be enough to win a more favorable report card from the election observers.

Azerbaijan is a country of 8.3 million people that lies at a strategic crossroads between East and West -- sandwiched between Russia and Iran and straddling a region that is emerging as a major energy transit route from Central Asia to Europe.

Baku has traditionally tried to balance itself between the West and Moscow. But this summer's war between Russia and Georgia -- when Moscow made clear its readiness to defend spheres of "privileged interest" in the former Soviet Union -- has cast doubt over Azerbaijan's ability to play both sides for much longer.
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