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Azerbaijan: Is Shakespearean Succession Drama Getting Closer To Its Final Act?

News that Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliev's son will run for president in upcoming elections along with his father has triggered a new wave of speculation as to what secret political combination the ailing patriarch and his immediate entourage might be meditating. Possible motives for Ilham Aliev's nomination are being debated at great length in Baku, but political analysts generally agree the Azerbaijani leader is now ready to implement his long-debated succession plans.

Prague, 9 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With roughly three months left before presidential polls scheduled for 15 October, Azerbaijan's election landscape is getting increasingly confused.

After months of speculation fueled by President Heidar Aliev's poor state of health, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party nevertheless nominated him two weeks ago (23 June) to run for re-election.

The move seemingly brought an end to widespread speculation that the veteran leader would throw in the towel and step down in favor of his 41-year-old son, Ilham.

A few days later, however, a group of residents in the autonomous exclave of Nakhichevan -- the traditional fiefdom of the Aliyev family -- unexpectedly nominated Ilham for the presidency.

Much to the surprise of opposition leaders and political analysts, Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission has authorized both father and son to run as candidates, although Ilham has said that he will vote for his father and join his campaign staff. Applications filed by the Alievs should be formally registered in the coming days and weeks, along with those of the 10 other candidates approved so far by the election body.

Aliyev has not commented on his son's nomination, but presidential aide Ramiz Mehdiev last week said that, compared to the number of candidates from the opposition, "two candidates from the ruling party" should not be considered abnormal.

However, political analyst and former lawmaker Nazim Imanov told RFE/RL that, whatever Mehdiev says, Azerbaijan's ruling family has set a precedent. "As far as I know, this is the first time in world electoral practices that both father and son are running as candidates at the same time. This demonstrates how, in general, power works in Azerbaijan and, in particular, it is a distinctive trait of Aliyev and his family as a whole," Imanov said.

Ilham has long been groomed to succeed his father, but officials in Azerbaijan have always denied Aliyev could possibly consider a monarchical transition of power.

Yet, the former Soviet Politburo member has himself prepared the ground for his son's rise to power, making him successively first deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's State Oil Company, president of the National Olympic Committee, first deputy chairman of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party and, finally, head of Azerbaijan's parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe.

Nearly three years ago (November 2000), Ilham gave the Russian "Moskovskie novosti" weekly an interview, in which it appeared clear that his father had dictated every single step in his political career. Analysts in Baku agree that no one else but the Azerbaijani leader could have convinced Ilham to run as a candidate in the upcoming polls.

But what could be the purpose of such a move?

Eynulla Fatullaev is a former Yeni Azerbaycan Party member who now works as a political expert for the independent "Monitor" weekly. He said possible motives for nominating the president's son are being debated at great length in Baku. He said most observers are inclined to believe that, should his health further deteriorate or fail to improve, Aliyev will most likely withdraw in favor of his son, even before the first round.

"Aliyev will stand as a candidate for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, whereas Ilham will [officially] run as an independent contender. Therefore, it is possible that Aliyev will call his voters to cast their ballots for his son, who will not represent any particular party. One has to take notice of the fact that up until now -- be it during the 1993 or the 1998 presidential elections -- Aliyev had never been the candidate of the ruling party. This is the first time he will run as a candidate for the ruling party. This confirms to us in our opinion that [he] will at the last minute offer his votes to his son [who will officially run as an independent candidate]. In other words, Aliyev will recourse to that very same election technique that has served him in the past, this time for the benefit of his son," Fatullaev said.

Some opposition political leaders and media outlets have ridiculed the fact that both father and son will stand as candidates, describing it as a mark of the ruling elite's "helplessness."

Imanov disagrees. He believes that, by asking his son to run as a candidate, Aliyev has decided to "take an insurance policy" in case his poor health forces him to stand down.

But asked whether the incumbent leader might seek a third term if his health allows, Imanov said: "Now I am beginning to have some doubts about that. Otherwise, I believe [Aliev] would not have nominated his son for the presidency."

Fatullaev gives a similar assessment, saying, "Aliyev is aware that he has almost no guarantee regarding the future," and that any delay in implementing his succession plans might be fatal for himself and his family because the political landscape might then change in favor of the opposition.

The health of the 80-year-old Aliyev has dramatically deteriorated in recent months. After collapsing twice during a public meeting in Baku in April, Aliyev went to an Ankara military hospital for treatment. He returned to Baku a few days later and, except for a few furtive appearances before television cameras, has mainly stayed out of public view.

Aliyev has canceled all visits abroad, including a trip to St. Petersburg last month to celebrate its 300th anniversary, and, more recently, his attendance at a regional summit in the Crimean resort of Yalta.

The "Hurriyet" newspaper on 25 June claimed Aliev's health has further declined and that he might require surgery. A few days earlier (14 June), another opposition daily, "Yeni Musavat," said doctors have strongly advised against Aliyev running for a third term, thus speeding up preparations for a succession scenario.

Neither of these reports, which were published just days before Ilham was nominated, can be independently confirmed. But yesterday, Aliyev was unexpectedly flown back to Ankara, officially to undergo medical checks.

Aliev's only son is often cited as the ruling clan's preferred successor to the incumbent leader. In recent days, he has received the support of most of Azerbaijan's power ministries. Ilham is not the only potential heir, however.

Fatullaev said possible candidates favored by one or another of the ruling elite's rival factions include Aliev's younger brother, 75-year-old lawmaker Jalal; National Security Minister Namig Abbasov, the only power minister who has not officially supported Ilham's candidacy; and exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliev.

A former parliament speaker and the leader of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP), Guliev is wanted in Azerbaijan for alleged fraud and has been living in exile in the United States since 1996. Citing inconsistency with Azerbaijani laws, the Central Election Commission last week (2 July) turned down Guliev's application, triggering outcry among ADP activists, who have vowed to stage daily protests until their leader is registered as a candidate.

In Fatullaev's opinion, Guliev and former President Ayaz Mutalibov -- another political exile whose return is demanded by the Council of Europe -- are among the most serious potential challengers to the Aliyev family. The analyst believes Nakhichevan-born Guliev has the support of some representatives of the ruling elite, while Mutalibov could garner a substantial number of protest votes.

"[As with Guliev,] Mutalibov's return to Azerbaijan could alter the [political] situation. But they will not be allowed to return unless [Aliev] dies or, at least, until he physically leaves the political stage. But if [Aliev] manages to keep enough strength until [early] October, if the crisis prompted by his health condition does not end fatally, it is more than likely that neither Guliev nor Mutalibov will be allowed to return and, consequently, Aliev's [succession] plans will get closer to implementation," Fatullaev said.

On 7 July, Russia's "Vremya novostei" daily wrote from Baku that, should Aliyev step down in favor of his son, traditional divisions among the Azerbaijani opposition would benefit Ilham, who might then be elected in the first round.

Personal ambitions have prevented the country's main opposition leaders from backing a single candidate in previous polls. Talks are under way to present a united front against Aliev, but they have so far produced no breakthrough.

Former deputy Imanov notes that the situation profits Azerbaijani leaders who continue to register opposition leaders -- real or supposed -- almost without restriction.

"Efforts made over the past year [to have a single opposition candidate for the presidency] have unfortunately yielded no results and, today, the chances of opposition parties reaching an agreement at the last moment are not that big. Unfortunately, the number of candidates continues to grow and my estimate is that we will end up with at least 20 presidential contenders. This shows how strongly divided the opposition is, and this [certainly] plays in the hands of the government," Imanov said.

In the meantime, Azerbaijan's political life will continue to hang upon Aliev's medical bulletins. Fatullaev believes any further deterioration of the president's health might strengthen what he described as "centrifugal forces" within the ruling elite and expose its contradictions.

"It is difficult to make any prediction since everything in this country depends on the health of one single man," the analyst said, adding, "Any dramatic deterioration of Aliev's physical condition can radically modify the political situation in the country and even alter the face of Azerbaijan's political establishment."