4 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "Vote for me," says independent candidate Naira Shakhtakhtinskaya, a member of Azerbaijan's parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe, "and I will carry your voice to Europe." As an independent, she actually paid for the privilege of appearing on state television, but Azerbaijan's law on elections guarantees all four major blocs and parties contesting the vote four minutes of free airtime every day.
It's a development welcomed by the opposition and applauded by international observers. But, as Matilda Bogner of Human Rights Watch said, there is still a lot more that needs doing.
"The government should be congratulated for allowing the opposition candidates from major blocs to have free airtime on an equal basis with the ruling government party," Bogner said. "However, outside of the free airtime, it's very clear that the media is biased in favor of the government. The OSCE has been carrying out monitoring of new hours on the major nationwide television stations and has found that all of these stations are significantly biased towards the government."
Geert Ahrens, the head of the OSCE Election Observation Mission to Azerbaijan, spoke to RFE/RL between briefings of the hundreds of international election monitors now pouring into Baku. The media coverage, he said, remained a real problem.
"When you look at the prime-time news, it is of course heavily on the government side -- there's a lot on the president, there's a lot on the government, and there's a lot on YAP [Yeni Azarbaycan Party] -- the government party and very little on the opposition -- and what there is on the opposition is negative and that, of course, is something which is not acceptable," Ahrens said.
It's something you can't help noticing even without knowledge of the Azeri language. Flip through the TV channels and, with the exception of the privately-owned ANS, there's a steady diet of pro-government programming -- the confessions of the government ministers and officials allegedly involved in an opposition-planned coup d'etat has been running endlessly for several days in a row. But Natiq Mamedov, the secretary of Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission, is unapologetic about the alleged bias.
"As for the fact that the opposition and governing parties aren't equal [in their access to the media], perhaps there is some truth in this. The opposition has few candidates and the governing party has many, so, of course, when they try to get television time there will be a difference. If today you have one candidate and I have 10, naturally I will have 10 times as much airtime as you," Mamedov said.
'Balanced' Media Coverage
It's a novel take on the principle of balanced media coverage and not entirely calculated to earn Mamedov the uncritical support of election observers. But it also gets to the heart of the problem. The idea of fair and equal coverage is not well embedded in Azerbaijan. Nor is the notion that the president should not take sides during the election campaign --- despite the existence of legislation that clearly states that he must not. Yesterday, just three days before the people of Azerbaijan go to the polls, President Ilham Aliyev used prime-time TV to criticize the opposition.
"On the one hand we have corrupt officials like Ali Insanov [former health minister], Farhad Aliyev [former minister of economic development], and others, each of whom has his own ambitions, while on the other we have Rasul Quliyev [an opposition leader in exile], a Mafiosi, who seeks to return to Azerbaijan and has ambitions to become president, as well as our very, very old opposition leaders, who reek of mothballs, like Isa Gambar and Ali Kerimov," Aliyev said. "What would have happened if their plans had been carried out? It would have meant civil war again in Azerbaijan."
When the president tells you that if you vote for the main opposition leaders you will be voting for men who risk plunging Azerbaijan into civil war, it is clear the conditions for a fair election are far from perfect. And yet there could still be a contest on 6 November. Yes, the odds are weighted heavily in favor of the governing party, but for all the restrictions and faults in the system, the opposition has had an opportunity to get its case across.
More than 600 foreign and thousands of local observers will be at the polling stations on 6 November to make sure that the vote itself is fair. Independent exit polls will also be held in 65 of the constituencies, all of which should restrict the opportunities for manipulation of the vote. For the opposition, though, the biggest problem may lie in overcoming popular apathy -- the feeling that there is nothing ordinary Azerbajanis can do to change their fate.