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Analysis: Azerbaijan Prepares For Municipal Elections

With less than two months left before the municipal elections scheduled for 17 December, Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) is already set to preserve its control over local councils across the country.

Speaking on 22 October at a press conference to assess the election campaign, YAP Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov said that almost 60 percent of the total 38,321 candidates registered for the ballot were nominated by YAP, reported on 23 October. Of the more than 18,000 YAP candidates who sought registration, Akhmedov continued, 17,705 were successful. By contrast, under 6 percent of all registered candidates represent opposition parties. In all, 21,647 seats on 2,735 municipal councils are to be contested.

Akhmedov noted on 22 October that the total number of candidates registered to contest the ballot is almost 2,000 fewer than participated in the previous local elections in 1999, and he attributed the decline to dwindling support for the opposition. Azerbaijan's main opposition parties are indeed still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the 15 October 2003 presidential ballot in which, according to official returns, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the outgoing president, won almost 80 percent of the vote. International observers who registered widespread blatant fraud nonetheless concluded that the violations were not extensive enough to call into question Aliyev's overall victory. But supporters of his main challenger, Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar, challenged that supposition and on 16 October engaged in violent clashes with police in Baku. Seven prominent oppositionists were arrested for their role in those events and were sentenced last week to prison terms ranging from 2 1/1 to five years.

Over the past year, the Azerbaijani opposition has maintained a low profile, waiting and hoping for the international community to pressure the leadership to make some gesture of conciliation. But when President Aliyev made a well-publicized offer in late summer of "dialogue," opposition parties rejected it, arguing that Aliyev should first demonstrate his good faith. In short, the opposition is currently marginalized, demoralized, and perceived as ineffective by much of the electorate.
Some local election commissions have reportedly refused to register opposition candidates for the ballot.

Opposition party activists interviewed by offered further explanations for most parties' failure to mount an all-out campaign for the municipal elections. The most important of those reasons is that local councils in Azerbaijani are wholly subordinate to, and at the mercy of, the regional administrator, who is appointed by the president. Such administrators appear to enjoy an even greater degree of impunity than did Communist Party raikom first secretaries during the Soviet era. An opposition activist who launched a campaign two months ago to publicize blatant corruption on the part of a local administrator in Masally and members of his family has been arrested and is currently being held in pretrial detention on what appear to be fabricated charges of illegal possession of drugs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 13, and 29 September and 21 October 2004). Consequently, even those few opposition representatives who succeeded in winning election to local councils in 1999 found themselves powerless to challenge the local strongman and his supporters.

Hasan Kerimov, head of the election campaign staff of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHChP), explained to that the party began selecting candidates in January, but that in some districts they were told that there was no point in registering to contest the elections as the local council had already received instructions "from above" concerning which candidates should win.

Ali Aliev of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) pointed out to that the electorate is aware of the relative unimportance of local elections, and is therefore reluctant to endorse prospective opposition candidates. He said AMIP had hoped to field 8,000 candidates, but most of them proved unable to garner the requisite minimum number of signatures in their support to register for the ballot. In the end, AMIP succeeded in registering only 422 candidates, Turan reported on 22 October. By contrast, the AHChP registered 512 and the Musavat party 254.

Moreover, some local election commissions have reportedly refused to register opposition candidates for the ballot on various pretexts. On 15 October, AMIP issued a statement complaining that local election commissions were demanding that would-be candidates produce 40 separate items of documentation in support of their applications to register for the vote. Turan reported on 13 October that in one district in the exclave of Nakhichevan, the Shahbuz-Babek district election commission has refused to register any opposition candidates. Residents of one village in Babek subsequently announced that they will boycott the ballot, Turan reported on 19 October. In five districts, the authorities have officially designated candidates loyal to the authorities as representing the progressive wing of the AHChP, and have subsequently refused to register the bona fide AHChP candidates. Kerimov told that many such episodes are still being reported, and this did not exclude the possibility that the AHChP will call on its supporters to boycott the vote in protest against such violations. Musavat party Chairman Qambar similarly told journalists on 26 October that his party and the Our Azerbaijan bloc, of which Musavat is a member, may decide to join an opposition boycott of the elections.

Meanwhile the Central Election Commission (CEC) is seeking to ensure that the actual voting proceeds smoothly and with the minimum of blatant violations. CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov told a session on 18 August that Baku is seeking financial assistance from the international community in order to acquire a further 5,000 computers that will make it possible for tabulated returns from individual districts to be posted immediately on the Internet, thereby increasing the transparency of the election process. (Under the election law, the preliminary returns must be made public no later than five days after the election, and the final returns within 30 days.) In addition, the governments of the United Kingdom and Norway will finance the purchase of an additional 2,500 transparent ballot boxes, Turan reported on 12 October. They are to replace the transparent boxes used during last year's presidential ballot, in which the aperture is too small to accommodate the folded ballot papers for the municipal elections, some of which list up to 100 candidates, Panahov explained on 18 August.

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