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In Azerbaijan's Routine Election, It's The Differences That Matter

BAKU -- Stand on a bustling street corner in Azerbaijan's prosperous capital, and the world can seem to move very fast.

Ask a local resident who he thinks will lead the country for the next five years, however, and time suddenly seems to screech to a halt:

"There's no doubt that Ilham will be chosen for the post," he says. "He will be president. There's no other way."

Polls, history, and intuition all indicate that Azerbaijan's autocratic incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, is nearly certain to sweep the country's October 9 presidential vote.

LIVE BLOG of Election Day

A win will hand the 51-year-old dynastic heir a controversial but constitutionally approved third term at a time when Aliyev still enjoys unrestrained access to billions of dollars in energy profits and vice-like control over most outlets of dissent with social media -- for now -- being the notable exception.

But while the outcome of this week's vote appears secure, the run-up has delivered campaign surprises that may raise hopes about the opposition's ability to rattle the ruling regime in the long term.

RELATED: Official App Releases Azerbaijani Vote Results -- A Day Early

Key among the surprises is the fact that after years of small-pond infighting, 2013 marks the first time Azerbaijan's opposition is presenting a united front.

The newly formed opposition coalition, the National Council of Democratic Forces, groups nearly all of the country's antiregime parties, including Musavat and the Azerbaijan Popular Front. It has survived even the forced withdrawal of its star candidate, filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov, and has rallied instead behind his lesser-known replacement, Camil Hasanli.

The move, initially seen as a setback, has proven to have its advantages.

Russian-speaking, Moscow-dwelling, Oscar-winning Ibragimbekov was better known on the world stage.

But Hasanli, a 61-year-old historian and former lawmaker, is well-acquainted with the dirty nature of Baku politics -- and isn't afraid to say so, in eloquent Azeri.

Would-be voters wave an Azerbaijani flag in downtown Baku four days ahead of the October 9 election.
Would-be voters wave an Azerbaijani flag in downtown Baku four days ahead of the October 9 election.
"[The ruling party] YAP is up to its ankles in corruption," he said in a recent televised presidential debate. "The government of Ilham Aliyev is in it up to its knees. And Ilham Aliyev is up to his throat in corruption."

The debates have largely been a circus, with Aliyev entirely absent and eight minor, pro-regime candidates hurling insults -- and, on one occasion, a water bottle -- at Hasanli.

Shades Of Navalny

Rivals and detractors have used their government-funded air time to deride Hasanli and fellow oppositionists, coarsely referring to them as dogs and homosexuals, and their wives as "whores."

Siyavush Novruzov, a member of Aliyev's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, went so far as to challenge the academic credentials of Hasanli -- who has authored numerous books on the Cold War and Azerbaijan's Karabakh and Naxcivan regions.

"You're not a scholar," he asserted, while representing Aliyev at an October 3 debate. "You were a gypsy and you lived on the street. And you'll remain on that street after the election, Camil Hasanli."

Observers say the toxic rhetoric surrounding the campaign and the debates has fueled public distaste for politics.

Elkhan Shahinoglu, the head of the Baku-based Atlas think tank, says it's a strategy that plays into the hands of Aliyev, who has presented himself as above the fray, making only a few posed campaign appearances and never appealing directly to the public for votes.

"The public's indifference to political processes is a negative," he says. "And it works in the government's favor because they can attempt to win elections without expending much energy on it. If you pay attention, you can see the ruling party has not even bothered to hold a major rally in Baku."

But Aliyev's absence has also left the spotlight with few places to turn but Hasanli.
Camil Hasanli
Camil Hasanli

And Hasanli -- in a tactic reminiscent of Russia's rising star of rogue politics, Aleksei Navalny -- has used his air time to launch a calculated assault on government corruption and what he says is Aliyev's steady appropriation of billions of dollars in petro-profits.

"I have brought documents showing I get 2,000 manats [in pension payments]," he said in one debate.

"I want to ask [YAP party leader] Ali Ahmadov whether he has brought documents for the 48 billion manats ($61 billion) Aliyev has taken out of the country.

"Has he brought the documents for the $75 million Dubai villas? Has he brought documents for the bribe Ilham Aliyev personally took, which was confirmed by a New York court? Has he brought documents of properties and financial resources that the Aliyev family has stolen from this country? If he hasn't, I've brought all of those documents together with the bank accounts."

Hasanli has also taken his crusade to the regions, appearing at a series of public rallies that have drawn modest crowds in the mid-thousands despite being relegated to marginal locations and conducted under heavy police watch.

Numerous attendants told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that they had been threatened with losing their job or harassment if they attended the gatherings, and the sons of two high-profile opposition figures, Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli and Hasanli's spokesman, Oqtay Gulaliyev, have been alternately jailed and attacked in the days leading up to the vote.

International Concern

Authorities have denied any political motive behind the violence. But the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have all expressed concern over "continued pressure" on activists, journalists, and opposition politicians in the run-up to the vote.

Members of the National Council say they believe a free and fair vote would deliver a victory for their camp, including their proposal to create a two-year transitional government that would pave the way for fresh elections, constitutional rewrites, and the abolition of censorship.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

It's a theory that is almost impossible to test in a country that routinely receives low marks for elections and where the OSCE, in an October 1 interim report, noted "intimidation of family members of political figures" and uneven access to administrative resources.

But the opposition says the fight doesn't end on October 9. Gozel Bayramli, the deputy head of the Popular Front, says the coalition is determined to stand firm even when the election is over.

"It's not a structure aimed at the elections," she says. "The National Council has a long-term vision. Our goal is to move from authoritarianism to democracy, to establish democracy. Until that happens, it's urgently important that the democratic forces remain united. We're trying for that; that's our goal."

A united opposition alone may not be enough to create seismic change in one of the former Soviet Union's most entrenched autocracies.

But it might prove a powerful factor if and when Aliyev's regime -- built on unpredictable oil profits and a venal patronage system -- may start to wobble.

In the meantime, Hasanli's message of endemic corruption is getting across to the people who, in his vision of a future democratic Azerbaijan, matter most -- the voters.

"Imagine I vote for you," a Baku resident told Hasanli. "You won't be elected. Even if 50-60 percent vote for you, you won't be elected. Aliyev is ready to take the post."

Arifa Kazimova reported from Baku and Daisy Sindelar reported and wrote from Prague