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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's First Lady Not Running For President -- For Now

Was Azerbaijani first lady Mehriban Aliyeva proposed nomination as a presidential candidate a trial balloon for a future transfer of power?
Was Azerbaijani first lady Mehriban Aliyeva proposed nomination as a presidential candidate a trial balloon for a future transfer of power?

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Photogallery The Political Rise Of Azerbaijan's First Lady

Azerbaijan's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, has never taken a back seat to her powerful husband. But could she replace him as president?
By Arifa Kazimova and Daisy Sindelar
Will she or won't she? More importantly, should she?

Those are the questions on many minds in Azerbaijan after the country's formidable first lady, 48-year-old Mehriban Aliyeva, appeared to take another step closer to succeeding her husband as president -- or even battling him for the post.

The Democratic Azerbaijan World Party, a small, pro-government grouping, announced on June 21 it had nominated Aliyeva to run in the oil-rich country's presidential election this October. The World Party has since sought to distance itself from the endorsement, saying the nomination was the work of a splinter faction within the group.

If it sticks, however, the nomination would put Aliyeva in direct competition with her husband, 51-year-old Ilham Aliyev, who has already been nominated by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) to seek a third term.

Analyst Zafar Guliyev, a member of Azerbaijan's opposition National Council, says the flash nomination was a trial balloon meant to test Aliyeva's electability at a time of rising political rivalries within the Baku elite. "After the YAP congress, they want to test the alternatives they have in reserve," Guliyev says. "They want to know the public opinion, the government's reaction."

The possibility of an Ilham-to-Mehriban political transfer has already prompted comparisons to the trajectories of other power wives, from the Philippines' Imelda Marcos and U.S.'s Hillary Clinton to Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has served as president since succeeding her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

It has also sparked fresh ruminations on the nature of the Aliyevs' 30-year marriage and their seeming determination to preserve the dynastic tradition that began with Ilham Aliyev inheriting the presidency from his powerful father, Heydar, in 2003.

President Mehriban?

The family affair extends to Aliyeva's own clan, the Pashayevs, who have used their ties to the president to amass political pull and a massive personal fortune.

Guliyev says the Pashayevs have long sought to muscle their way into the top echelons of Azerbaijan's power structures, and even contemplated a Mehriban-for-president run as early as 2008.

"The same initiative was blocked at that time. Maybe within the family or within the government. But Mehriban Aliyeva and the Pashayevs have gotten stronger ever since, on all sides -- economic, financial, and in terms of influence," the analyst notes. "I think they're making another effort. Maybe it will once again be countered, but this time the situation is different."

PHOTO GALLERY: Mehriban Aliyev's life in pictures
  • Mehriban Aliyeva with her mother, Aida Imanguliyeva, one of the first women in the Soviet Union to earn a doctoral degree in Oriental studies.
  • Mehriban (right) and her sister Nargiz with their parents, Arif Pashayev and Aida Imanguliyeva. Pashayev now serves as rector of Baku's National Aviation Academy; Nargiz heads the Azerbaijani branch of Moscow State University.
  • Ilham Aliyev with Mehriban in April 1983, shortly before their marriage.
  • Aliyev family portrait: former President Heydar Aliyev (center), surrounded (left to right) by his daughter, Sevil; son-in-law; wife Zarifa; granddaughter; and his son, current President Ilham Aliyev with his future wife, Mehriban.
  • Heydar Aliyev (center) pictured with Ilham, Mehriban (right), and the couple's two daughters, Arzu (left) and Leyla.
  • Mehriban Aliyeva meeting with Russian first lady Lyudmila Putina in Baku in September 2003.
  • Ilham and Mehriban attending Norouz festivities in Baku.
  • Aliyeva accepting an honorary professorship from the I.M. Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy in Moscow, where she attended university.
  • Mehriban (center) attends a presentation by "Nargis" magazine in January 2013 with her daughters, Leyla (right) and Arzu. U.S. diplomats have been cited in Wikileaks documents as expressing confusion between mother and daughters, fueling rumors that Aliyeva and her daughters may have undergone plastic surgery.
  • Aliyeva, who has used her role as first lady to support a wide range of charities, opening a newly rebuilt education facility in Azerbaijan.
  • Ilham Aliyev has described his wife as "the most beautiful woman in Azerbaijan."
  • "A woman is a woman, even if she is the president's wife," Aliyev has said. "She is a guarantor of peace, harmony, and love in the family."


Aliyev, for one, has never alluded to a potential power struggle within the presidential marriage, and has called his style-conscious wife "the most beautiful woman in Azerbaijan."

But continued doubts about Aliyev's third-term run -- constitutionally approved but to some distastefully autocratic -- have prompted suggestions that he may use the issue as a pretext for bowing out of a race where he is no longer the preferred candidate of the decision-making elite.

Would She Want The Job?

Aliyeva, who unlike her husband maintains strong ties to academia and the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, may also be seen as a more strategic candidate at a time when popular cultural figures, like screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, are at the forefront of the opposition's challenge.

At the same time, it is unclear whether deeply traditional Azerbaijan is ready to embrace the notion of a female president. Nor is it certain that Aliyeva, an art and charity devotee with a propensity for lavish living, has a particular affinity for day-to-day politics.

In addition to her recent promotion to serve as deputy chair of the ruling YAP, she has served eight years as a parliament deputy, but was seen as a sporadic legislative presence at best.

Her true power derives from the family's reported billion-dollar financial holdings, including monopoly control of Azerbaijan's lucrative oil, communications, and construction markets, many tied to massive offshore companies in Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

The Aliyevs are also seen as securing their interests by imposing one of the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan has one of the region's worst records on media suppression, corruption, and heavy-handed crowd control.

The notion of a third Aliyev stepping into the presidential post inspired a muted range of emotions in Baku this week.

"I don't think Mehriban Aliyeva should be nominated because she's the wife of the current president of Azerbaijan. It would be good if they nominated someone else altogether," one man told RFE/RL in Baku.

"I think it's a good thing. The country will prosper and the political course set by Ilham Aliyev will continue," another man said in Baku.

WATCH: Baku vox pops on an Aliyeva candidacy
Vox Pops: Should Azerbaijan's First Lady Run For President?i
X
June 25, 2013
Rumors are circulating in Azerbaijan that a pro-government party has nominated the country's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, to run against her husband, President Ilham Aliyev, in the election this fall. Although the party has denied the rumors, the possibility of a presidential run by Aliyeva has got Baku talking. (Produced by Rena Allahverdiyeva, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service)

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Arifa Kazimova in Baku

Daisy Sindelar

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