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Azerbaijan: Baku Under International Pressure To Conduct Fair Poll

Baku, 1 November (AFP) Azerbaijan goes to the polls on 6 November in the first parliamentary elections in the country since November 2000 and the first major national poll since the election of Ilham Aliyev as president in October 2003. At stake are the 125 seats in the Milli Meclis, or National Assembly, and Azerbaijan's reputation as an aspiring democracy.

Azerbaijan does not have a strong track record for holding free and fair elections. Since September 1996, international monitors have assessed every poll to be less than free and fair. Gerard Stoudmann, then director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, unofficially characterized the November 2000 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan as "a crash course in various types of falsification."

In many respects, the outcome of the vote will be a judgment on his record in office. President Aliyev has repeatedly asserted that he sees his country's future with Europe and has welcomed Azerbaijan's inclusion, together with the two other South Caucasian states, Armenia and Georgia, in the European Union's New Neighborhood Policy.

But the EU is losing patience with the slow pace of reform in Azerbaijan and the country's shaky democratic credentials. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told the European Parliament on 26 October that the Azerbaijani government was violating basic political freedoms in the run-up to the elections. The conduct of the elections, she said, would be a litmus test of the country's will to bring itself into line with the EU.

Series Of Arrests

Ferrero-Waldner's harsh criticism followed the arrest of government ministers, a senior state official, and an oil magnate in late October on charges of conspiring with an opposition leader to overthrow the state. The opposition leader in question, Rasul Quliyev, has been in exile since 1996 but reportedly tried to return to Azerbaijan on 17 October to participate in the elections.

Quliyev says he hired a private jet to fly him to Baku but turned back when he learnt that troops had taken over the airport and that the government planned to arrest him the minute he set foot in the country. The arrests and charges appear to have cowed the opposition at a critical moment in the electoral campaign.

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is under considerable international pressure to ensure that these elections are a substantial improvement on the last parliamentary vote in 2000, which was described at the time as seriously flawed. In those elections, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) won 108 of the 125 seats in the Milli Mejlis.

This time around, President Aliyev has pledged to make the elections free and fair and a host of international organizations is on hand to try to hold him to his word -- among them, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the U.S. Embassy in Baku.

The OSCE, which has attempted to mediate between the opposition and the government in the run-up to the elections, has tried to nudge the authorities toward concessions. It praised a presidential decree of 11 May, in which Aliyev acknowledged "mistakes and deficiencies" in the conduct of elections and ordered local officials not to detain opposition activists for carrying out their electoral duties.

But the OSCE has criticized the rancorous atmosphere in which the election is being fought, the denial of access to opposition candidates to airtime on state and public television, the government's refusal to permit the opposition to hold demonstrations in the center of the capital, Baku, and the violence of the police in breaking up unsanctioned rallies.

Aliyev has responded -- somewhat belatedly -- to some of the OSCE's demands. The government has published an electoral register, will ink the fingers of voters to prevent multiple voting, and will now permit nongovernmental organizations funded from abroad to monitor the poll.

Opposition Challenge

What though of the opposition? How credible is its challenge to the ruling YAP?

In the past, an inability to agree on strategy and policies has splintered the opposition into small and largely ineffectual groups. This time, three of the biggest parties -- the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, theDemocratic Party of Azerbaijan,and Musavat -- have united in the Azadliq bloc and are presenting a more serious challenge to the YAP.

The "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, too, have boosted morale and convinced many that change is possible in Azerbaijan.

And the opposition can cite an impressive list of government policy failings: Azerbaijan is still listed as one of the most corrupt societies in the world, Nagorno-Karabakh and other territories lost in the conflict with Armeniaare still in Armenian hands 11 years after the war ended, and more than 500,000 refugees from the fighting are still waiting to go home. Add to that the gnawing poverty that, according to the International Monetary Fund, still afflicts almost half the population and the basis should exist for the opposition to mount a challenge.

Yet even if these were free and fair elections, most observers believe the ruling party would still win -- albeit with a much reduced majority. Opinion polls show that Aliyev is a popular president who is now beginning to ride a wave of petroleum cash that ought to make it easy for him to win popular support. And the real hydrocarbon boom is only just about to start. Oil from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is due to reach the Turkish seaport of Ceyhan later this year. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, government revenues -- already substantial -- are expected to grow by an average of 128 percent from 2006 to 2009.

Azerbaijan In Focus