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Azerbaijan's First Lady Not Running For President -- For Now

Was Azerbaijani first lady Mehriban Aliyeva proposed nomination as a presidential candidate a trial balloon for a future transfer of power?
Was Azerbaijani first lady Mehriban Aliyeva proposed nomination as a presidential candidate a trial balloon for a future transfer of power?
Will she or won't she? More importantly, should she?

Those are the questions on many minds in Azerbaijan after the country's formidable first lady, 48-year-old Mehriban Aliyeva, appeared to take another step closer to succeeding her husband as president -- or even battling him for the post.

The Democratic Azerbaijan World Party, a small, pro-government grouping, announced on June 21 it had nominated Aliyeva to run in the oil-rich country's presidential election this October. The World Party has since sought to distance itself from the endorsement, saying the nomination was the work of a splinter faction within the group.

If it sticks, however, the nomination would put Aliyeva in direct competition with her husband, 51-year-old Ilham Aliyev, who has already been nominated by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) to seek a third term.

Analyst Zafar Guliyev, a member of Azerbaijan's opposition National Council, says the flash nomination was a trial balloon meant to test Aliyeva's electability at a time of rising political rivalries within the Baku elite. "After the YAP congress, they want to test the alternatives they have in reserve," Guliyev says. "They want to know the public opinion, the government's reaction."

The possibility of an Ilham-to-Mehriban political transfer has already prompted comparisons to the trajectories of other power wives, from the Philippines' Imelda Marcos and U.S.'s Hillary Clinton to Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has served as president since succeeding her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

It has also sparked fresh ruminations on the nature of the Aliyevs' 30-year marriage and their seeming determination to preserve the dynastic tradition that began with Ilham Aliyev inheriting the presidency from his powerful father, Heydar, in 2003.

President Mehriban?

The family affair extends to Aliyeva's own clan, the Pashayevs, who have used their ties to the president to amass political pull and a massive personal fortune.

Guliyev says the Pashayevs have long sought to muscle their way into the top echelons of Azerbaijan's power structures, and even contemplated a Mehriban-for-president run as early as 2008.

"The same initiative was blocked at that time. Maybe within the family or within the government. But Mehriban Aliyeva and the Pashayevs have gotten stronger ever since, on all sides -- economic, financial, and in terms of influence," the analyst notes. "I think they're making another effort. Maybe it will once again be countered, but this time the situation is different."

PHOTO GALLERY: Mehriban Aliyev's life in pictures

Aliyev, for one, has never alluded to a potential power struggle within the presidential marriage, and has called his style-conscious wife "the most beautiful woman in Azerbaijan."

But continued doubts about Aliyev's third-term run -- constitutionally approved but to some distastefully autocratic -- have prompted suggestions that he may use the issue as a pretext for bowing out of a race where he is no longer the preferred candidate of the decision-making elite.

Would She Want The Job?

Aliyeva, who unlike her husband maintains strong ties to academia and the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, may also be seen as a more strategic candidate at a time when popular cultural figures, like screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, are at the forefront of the opposition's challenge.

At the same time, it is unclear whether deeply traditional Azerbaijan is ready to embrace the notion of a female president. Nor is it certain that Aliyeva, an art and charity devotee with a propensity for lavish living, has a particular affinity for day-to-day politics.

In addition to her recent promotion to serve as deputy chair of the ruling YAP, she has served eight years as a parliament deputy, but was seen as a sporadic legislative presence at best.

Her true power derives from the family's reported billion-dollar financial holdings, including monopoly control of Azerbaijan's lucrative oil, communications, and construction markets, many tied to massive offshore companies in Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

The Aliyevs are also seen as securing their interests by imposing one of the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan has one of the region's worst records on media suppression, corruption, and heavy-handed crowd control.

The notion of a third Aliyev stepping into the presidential post inspired a muted range of emotions in Baku this week.

"I don't think Mehriban Aliyeva should be nominated because she's the wife of the current president of Azerbaijan. It would be good if they nominated someone else altogether," one man told RFE/RL in Baku.

"I think it's a good thing. The country will prosper and the political course set by Ilham Aliyev will continue," another man said in Baku.

WATCH: Baku vox pops on an Aliyeva candidacy
Vox Pops: Should Azerbaijan's First Lady Run For President?
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Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Arifa Kazimova in Baku

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