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Azerbaijan: Voters Head To Polls For Controversial Vote

Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev, one of the last political holdovers of the Soviet era, will step down tomorrow as voters in the South Caucasus republic go to the polls to elect a new head of state. Few surprises are expected in tomorrow's ballot: most Azerbaijanis believe the 80-year-old president has spared no effort to ensure that his son, Ilham Aliev, succeeds him. But even with the outcome a foregone conclusion, analysts say the vote may still spark a new era of upheaval in Azerbaijani politics.

Prague, 14 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow's vote is the first nationwide poll since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in early 2001. But in most respects, the election bears traces of the country's Soviet past.

The probable victor, 41-year-old Ilham Aliev, is the son of the current president. He has been anointed as the official candidate of the ruling party. He enjoys the backing of Azerbaijan's powerful state institutions.

And if all else fails, some observers believe, the ruling elite is prepared to stuff ballot boxes in order to ensure the younger Aliyev a swift and easy win.

Hasan Quliev is a political expert with Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency.

"Azerbaijan most likely will not have a fair election, and it appears that the issue of Ilham Aliyev is already settled. In other words, the polls are likely to be falsified to the degree that one can even say the word 'elected' is improper. Ilham Aliyev will not be elected. He will falsify the election [for] his own profit," Quliev said.

One of the two main opposition candidates, Equality Party leader Isa Qambar, claims that he enjoys the support of a majority of Azerbaijanis. But in comments made yesterday to Reuters Television, he too accused the so-called "Aliyev clan" of orchestrating a failsafe win.

"I have no doubts whatsoever that the authorities will try to falsify the election results because they know very well that the people will not vote for them, that voters are against them, that voters want changes. And, knowing this, the authorities are preparing a total falsification," Qambar said.

Others in Baku are more optimistic. Resat Rezaquliev chairs the Eurasian Foundation for Strategic Cooperation (EFSC), a nongovernmental organization that monitors political developments in Azerbaijan. He says despite the ruling elite's obvious efforts to keep the presidency "in the family," tomorrow's polls may have some surprises in store.

"The first surprise could well be the voters' will. I believe the upcoming polls stand a good chance of being more democratic than the shameful presidential election we had in 1998 or the equally shameful legislative election we had in 2000. Important financial resources have been injected into the electoral process and, despite everything, I think there have been some elements of democracy during the campaign. I dare to hope the upcoming polls will be more democratic than previous elections, even though it is impossible, unfortunately, to say they will be entirely clean," Rezaquliev said.

State-sponsored opinion surveys suggest a large majority of Azerbaijanis favor political continuity. Opposition leaders, citing heavy turnout at their own campaign meetings, say Ilham Aliyev lacks popular support and would lose a free and fair poll.

Before he left Azerbaijan in early July to undergo medical treatment abroad, 80-year-old President Heydar Aliyev pledged the upcoming polls would demonstrate the "supremacy of democracy" in his country.

But from the outset of the election campaign, NGOs in Azerbaijan and abroad have denounced reports that opposition candidates have been subjected to attacks and police harassment, and are routinely denied wide media access -- unlike Ilham Aliev, whose posters monopolize the streets of Baku and other major cities.

International organizations and Western governments have expressed concern over the reports, warning Azerbaijani authorities the electoral procedure will be closely monitored. Earlier this month, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher cautioned Azerbaijan's leadership, saying that, as a "good friend" of their country, Washington expects the polls to meet international democratic and human rights requirements.

"We look forward to free and fair presidential elections on October 15th. It is very important to us that these elections meet the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and we have long made that clear and worked towards that end," Boucher said.

Yet, many in Azerbaijan believe the United States and other foreign countries favor Ilham Aliev's candidacy. They cite high-level talks Ilham Aliyev had with foreign leaders since his father ordered lawmakers to appoint him prime minister in early August.

As it became clear that Heydar Aliyev -- who remains hospitalized in the United States -- would eventually withdraw from the presidential race, his son held successive meetings with top leaders from Turkey, the U.S., and Russia.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze have indicated in recent days they were already considering Ilham Aliyev as Azerbaijan's next leader. Some observers say such signals indicate that Azerbaijan's main economic partners, who have invested billions of dollars in the local oil industry, are concerned at the prospect of political upheaval in Baku. Stability is also of key importance to Armenia, which hopes a smooth transition from the elder Aliyev to the younger will leave the door open for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute.

EFSC chairman Rezaquliev says, "The big Western powers absolutely need stability in Azerbaijan in order to preserve the investments they have made [in this country]. Regional states need stability in Azerbaijan just as much. They also need predictability. Ilham Aliyev has campaigned as the heir to his father and the existing regime. And regional countries, neighboring countries expect guarantees regarding the political stability of Azerbaijan, which as much as guarantees their own security."

Eight candidates remain in the presidential race. Among opposition figures, only two -- National Independence Party (AMIP) leader Etibar Mammadov and Equality chairman Isa Qambar -- represent a serious potential challenge to Ilham Aliev.

After months of bargaining, exiled Democratic Party leader and former parliament speaker Rasul Quliev -- who is wanted on fraud charges in Azerbaijan and was barred from running in the polls -- called upon his supporters on 9 October to vote for Qambar.

By contrast, Mammadov had long made it clear that he did not wish to strike an alliance with his old-time rival Qambar, thus definitively ruining all prospects of a single candidate from major non-government parties challenging the younger Aliyev -- an initiative many in Baku had been hoping would improve the prospects of the opposition.

Turan political expert Hasan Quliev says an alliance between the two men would not have been enough to alter what he describes as the election's "pre-determined outcome." But he says it would have boosted the morale of their supporters and raised the prospect that the public would demand the vote be nullified.

"If [it is] a case of gross election fraud, one could expect the population to voice its discontent on the night [following the polls]. What will the scale of these protests be? That is the question. The power structures will naturally attempt to forcefully repress these protests and legalize the results of this pseudo-election. I think it will be impossible to avoid excesses," Quliev said.

Most regional experts believe failure to close ranks behind a single candidate will have dramatic consequences for the opposition in the long run.

Azer Rasidoglu is a political analyst for the independent Russian-language "Zerkalo" newspaper in Baku. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, he said he believed failure to align behind a single candidate would herald the end of the current opposition.

"What is at stake on October 15th is not only the fate of the presidential election. The fate of the opposition and its leaders is also at stake. Should the opposition lose the election [because of its failure to join forces], it would no longer be possible to speak about its future existence. The Musavat [Equality] party would split, AMIP would disappear and opposition leaders would have to resign, because after such a shameful defeat they would no longer have enough authority left to run their [respective] parties," Rasidoglu said.

Rezaquliev agrees. He says this week's polls will likely mark a turning point in the history of Azerbaijan's mainstream opposition parties.

"I believe that after [15] October, Azerbaijan's entire political infrastructure will enter a period of deep transformation and the balance of forces will change dramatically. First and foremost, I have the opposition in mind. I believe there will be a generational shift within the opposition, that new people -- we already know who -- will appear and that in the next presidential election in 2008 we will have a brand-new political landscape," Rezaquliev said.

Some political analysts say Heydar Aliev's withdrawal after more than 30 years of virtually uninterrupted reign will remain a landmark in Azerbaijani history. They argue that even if Ilham Aliyev takes over from his father, and regardless of whatever policy he chooses to pursue, the era of Heydar Aliyev is now over. As far as the ruling clan is concerned, Rezaquliev says, new blood will not be enough to ensure continuity of power. "Ilham Aliyev will not be able to stay in power if he does not modernize it," he predicts.