Azerbaijan: Father Or Son?

As Heidar Aliev flies to Turkey for further medical treatment, there is growing uncertainty about who the next president will be.

Azerbaijan: Father Or Son?

As Heidar Aliev flies to Turkey for further medical treatment, there is growing uncertainty about who the next president will be.

October's presidential elections in Azerbaijan are looking ever more unpredictable. This week it was announced that President Heidar Aliev's untested son will run for office alongside his ailing father.

It is now far from certain that the 80-year-old president will be standing at all. On July 9, Aliev, who is in poor health, was flown to the Gulhane military hospital in Turkey.

Four days earlier, the Central Electoral Commission abruptly authorised the candidacy of his son, Ilham Aliev, just before nominations closed.

Ilham, 42, is the first vice-president of the Azerbaijani state oil firm SOCAR and one of the leaders of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party. Ten commission members voted in favour of his candidacy, and five against.

Aliev junior's presidential bid sparked a heated debate within the electoral commission, with opposition members suggesting his name should not go on the candidate list. Commission secretary and opposition activist Vidadi Mahmudlu complained that Ilham Aliev's papers had arrived just 30 minutes before the board meeting, and that he hadn't had time to read them.

Yusif Bagirzade, a commission member from the opposition Democratic Party, objected that the younger Aliev cannot run for president as he holds dual Azerbaijani and Turkish citizenship. Moreover, he said, Aliev is implicated in a court case currently being reviewed by a New York court.

Ilham Aliev was, nevertheless, allowed to run as the nominee of an "initiative group" of voters from his home region of Nakhichevan. His father, Heidar Aliev, will run on the ticket of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party.

His surprise entry into the race is clearly associated with his father's ill health. The president, who suffers from a recurring heart problem, has never fully recovered from his public collapse on April 21.

The leading opposition newspaper, Yeni Musavat, quoted what it called "an informed source within the presidential administration" as saying that Aliev had fainted once again on July 4, just before a meeting with Turkish justice minister Cemil Cicek. However, he did not cancel the meeting.

Five days later, before he went into hospital, Aliev met Margarita Boniver, Italy's deputy foreign minister, who was heading an official European Union delegation to Azerbaijan. In television pictures, the president looked exhausted and spoke with difficulty.

At the same time, the electoral commission rejected the candidacy of a leading opposition candidate, former speaker of parliament Rasul Guliev, who is chairman of the Democratic Party. It is widely believed that Guliev, who was once an ally of Aliev but now lives in exile in the United States, is one of the very few political figures with enough clout to challenge the ruling Aliev family.

The electoral commission went out of its way to thwart Guliev. Commission secretary Ingilab Nasirov pointed out that Guliev holds an American green card, which means he pays taxes in the US and cannot leave the US for more than 12 months at a time.

Nasirov claims that this violates the provision in Azerbaijani law that a presidential candidate must be completely free from any liability to a foreign state. The commission refused to accept Guliev's papers, which had been certified by a US notary, saying he should have had his signature witnessed by Azerbaijani diplomats in the United States.

"Falsification has begun," Guliev told the Turan news agency, commenting on the decision to bar him from the race. "It would be naive to expect a fair democratic election from Heidar Aliev."

Guliev also said it was "immoral for a father and a son to vie for power".

"This has never happened before. Perhaps Heidar Aliev is unsure whether he will live long enough to run," he speculated.

The situation may become still more confusing if a third Aliev, the president's brother Jalal, decides to join in the race. According to Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, groups are already being formed in the Sabirabad and Saatli districts of central Azerbaijan to rally support for Jalal, a 75-year old academician.

Another opposition leader, Ali Kerimli, the leader of the "reformist" wing of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, interpreted the multiple candidacy as a sign of disarray within the ruling regime. "We can only infer that the presidential team is so unsure of its future that it is ready to try the most unnatural, nonsensical moves," he said.

Government officials continue to insist that Heidar Aliev is still their candidate.

Presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mekhtiev insisted there was nothing strange or unusual about Ilham Aliev's presidential bid. "Why can't the ruling party list two candidates to run against 12 or 13 contenders from the opposition?" he said. "The entire nation will vote for Heidar Aliev, and Ilham Aliev will only have the votes of his support group."

Ilham Aliev told ANS television on July 9 that he was still firmly behind his father's presidential campaign, but wanted to "make his contribution to the common cause". He said he would be voting for his father in the October 15 poll.

However, many observers are speculating that, at some point during the race, President Aliev will step aside, citing ill health, and urge voters to back his son in the name of national stability.

Then, if this does not work, the election may be put off or rescheduled. Azerbaijan's new electoral code states that if an incumbent president stands for re-election but has to quit the race due to ill health, the election may be put off by up to three months.

An early opinion poll conducted by the ADAM agency reveals widespread public cynicism about the coming election.

According to the poll, 57 per cent of voters think the current electoral law is undemocratic, 49 per cent believe the election will be rigged, and 62 per cent want the current rulers to leave.

Only 16 per cent of the sample said they blame themselves for the nation's woes. A disappointing 54 per cent believe Azerbaijan is not ready for democracy, and just 36 per cent believe that the electorate is capable of electing a decent ruler.

The poll results suggest that voters are not very interested in the political intrigues happening above them.

That could make it easier for Azerbaijan's rulers to ensure victory for their chosen candidate - but first they have to decide who that is.

Mamed Suleimanov is a journalist with Novoe Vremya newspaper in Baku

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