August 1 marks the start of the campaign for the Azerbaijani presidential election scheduled for October 15. That incumbent Ilham Aliyev -- who succeeded his father, Heidar Aliyev, as president in 2003 in a ballot deemed by international monitors not to have met international standards for democratic elections -- will be reelected for a second term is a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, even before the campaign got under way, a senior member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) proposed on July 22 conducting a referendum on amending the constitution to permit Ilham Aliyev to serve a third presidential term beginning in 2013.
In many respects, the current campaign looks set to replicate many of the negative aspects of the 1998 and 2003 campaigns that incurred trenchant criticism from the international community. In its final report on the November 2005 Azerbaijani parliamentary elections, which were similarly deemed not to have met "a number of OSCE and Council of Europe standards and commitments for democratic elections," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe proposed amendments to the election law that it considered imperative to ensure that the next nationwide ballot came closer to meeting those standards.
Foremost among those recommendations was the reconfiguring of the Central Election Commission and lower-level commissions to ensure they enjoy public confidence, in particular the trust of those running for office. Azerbaijani opposition parties have for the past decade argued the need to abolish the ruling YAP's control over election commissions, which adopt decisions on the basis of a two-thirds majority. That move is imperative, the opposition argues, in order to minimize the likelihood of fraud during the counting and tabulation of votes.
In early 2006, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission accordingly set about trying to induce the Azerbaijani authorities to undertake the kind of fundamental revision of the election law that would at last provide for a clean vote, the outcome and validity of which the opposition would have no grounds to question. The commission drafted, and presented to the Azerbaijani government, recommendations intended to ensure that election commissions would inspire the trust of all political forces, and the Azerbaijani authorities duly submitted proposed amendments to the Venice Commission in early 2007.
Weighted Election Commission
But following 18 months of consultations during which the Azerbaijani authorities repeatedly rejected the opposition's demand for equal representation on election commissions, on June 2 the Azerbaijani parliament finally approved selective amendments to the election law, but upheld the YAP's dominance over election commissions. In addition, the length of the entire election campaign was cut from four months to 75 days, with electioneering restricted to a period of 27 days prior to the actual vote.
Even before those amendments were passed, the opposition Azadliq bloc had warned it would boycott the vote unless the election law were liberalized to guarantee a "level playing field" for all candidates. And the prominent opposition Musavat party -- whose leader, Isa Qambar, claimed in 2003 to have defeated Ilham Aliyev with 60 percent of the vote -- announced that it might reconsider its decision to field a candidate. Qamber was one of several potential opposition presidential candidates who boycotted the 1998 presidential ballot rather than participate in a poll they considered stacked against them.
In other respects too, the opposition is even more marginalized and weakened than on the eve of the 2005 parliamentary or 2003 presidential elections. Several opposition parties -- including Musavat, the progressive wing of the split Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, and Great Creation -- have been evicted from the office premises they rented and now operate out of their leaders' apartments. The Baku municipal authorities routinely reject requests by opposition parties to stage rallies in the city center. State television remains off-limits to opposition politicians, and under the revised election law, it will not make free airtime available to presidential candidates, although the public broadcaster will do so.
Only three candidates have signaled their firm intention to register for the election: Eldar Namazov, a former adviser to Heidar Aliyev and a leading member of the opposition Yeni Siyaset bloc that participated in the November 2005 parliamentary ballot; Gudrat Gasankuliyev, a parliament deputy from the Single Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party, aka the Three Gs Group; and Greens party co-Chairman Mais Gyulaliyev.
The conservative wing of the Popular Front intends to nominate its chairman, Mirmahmud Miralioglu, while the Azadliq party (not to be confused with the eponymous opposition bloc) will nominate Ahmed Orudj, according to day.az on July 30. Musavat and AMIP are to decide within the next few days whether to participate in the race.
But even if both Qambar, who polled a distant second in 2003 according to official results, and AMIP leader Etibar Mammadov, who polled second in 1998, register as candidates, Ilham Aliyev is virtually assured of the 50 percent plus one vote needed for a first-round victory.
The one open question is whether he will garner more or less than the 76.84 percent of the vote he was credited with in 2003. A lower percentage would call into question the effectiveness of, and the level of popular support for, his efforts to build on and expand his father's legacy with the aim of raising living standards. But the opposition would almost certainly denounce a higher figure as evidence of either vote rigging, or unfair restrictions on electioneering, or both. Political analysts too might question its accuracy, especially in contrast with the 53.47 percent that Aliyev's Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, received in the preterm presidential ballot in January 2008.