Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan's Underwhelming Election

The only threat facing President Ilham Aliev is a possible low turnout on election-day.
By Boyukaga Agayev
Azerbaijan is about to undergo a presidential election - but you would not know it judging by the level of interest of ordinary citizens, who seem to be paying more attention to the election in the United States than their own.

Official news reports are saying that all the preparatory work has been done for polling day on October 15 and the polling stations are ready to receive voters. Seven candidates have been registered and a campaign is officially underway.

Yet almost no one doubts which of the seven candidates will emerge the victor. The main opposition is boycotting the poll and to many Azerbaijanis serving president Ilham Aliev is the only recognisable name on the ballot.

The other six candidates taking part are not household names. Some were formerly middle-ranking opposition politicians, among them Gulamhusein Alibeili, who left his position as one of the leaders of the Popular Front party to found a new party entitled Aidynlar (Intelligentsia). He may attract some discontented voters, but the wide expectation is that opponents of the current president will simply stay at home on October 15.

Among them will be thirty-year-old Baku resident Elnur Rzayev. "I don't want to choose between the bad and the very bad," he said. "And what's more, everyone knows already what the result is going to be."

Sabuhi Gafarli, an expert in public relations, who runs the non-governmental organisation Free Person noted, "The Azerbaijani voter has definitively lost all belief in most politicians and prefers to watch entertainment programmes than election debates."

Gafarli said that a normal campaign should be accompanied by rallies and public meetings; electoral posters put up in the streets; and debates and speeches in the media. But none of this has been in evidence, with just two weeks to go before the election.

The traditional Azerbaijani opposition which in 2005 united into a single bloc named Azadlyq (Freedom) decided to boycott these elections, meaning that none of its big names, such as former losing candidate Isa Gambar, are on the ballot.

However, the opposition has also failed to take the opportunity to explain to the public why it is not taking part and is not holding any public meetings. This is all the more strange, when you consider that the opposition has almost no access to television and can only communicate through the media through low-circulation party newspapers.

Arif Hajili, deputy leader of the opposition Musavat party, told IWPR that the city authorities of Baku had refused to give permission for a rally they hoped to hold in the city centre and they had cancelled all planned meetings for the foreseeable future. Another leading opposition politician, Hasan Kerimli, said they were planning to contest the decision in court.

For their part, the Baku municipal authorities announced a list of places where a rally can be held. The nearest of them was the state oil company's stadium in Bibiheybat, eight kilometres west of the city centre.

The pro-government New Azerbaijan Party held its first rally of the campaign in this stadium, causing traffic in the west of Baku to be jammed for several hours. However, the opposition is not interested in the venue.

Around the city streets, there’s little sign of election-related publicity, because legislative amendments ban posters being displayed on walls and the windows of houses and shops. Special billboards are the only form of advertising permitted.

In this campaign, there is also much less political debate on television, with free airtime being limited to just three hours a week on public television for all three candidates. According to Gafarly, this is insufficient for the opposition candidates to get their message across.

Aliev, by contrast, is shown on regular news broadcasts, cutting red ribbons as he opens bridges and parks. He has barely campaigned, leaving mostly to his underlings.

Media expert Zeinal Mamedli, who teaches at Baku state university’s journalism faculty, said that what are billed as television debates are anything but, as participating candidates did not offer differing points of view on the problems facing Azerbaijan,

"Whether the Azerbaijani television channels are actually trying to organise real debates is another issue," said Mamedli. "Unfortunately I don't see any desire to do so."

Mehman Aliev, director of the pro-opposition Turan news agency, went further, saying, "If all the other six presidential candidates support Ilham Aliev what elections are we talking about? You can see this for yourself in their speeches on public television. None of the candidates talks about real issues. They talk so cautiously as if they are afraid of offending someone.

"I believe that the West is determined to give another five years of rule to the Alievs and to get the real reforms which have been talked about for some time.”

Without any serious opposition candidates in the race, there are fears that there will be a low turnout. This will not invalidate the election as there is no minimum required for the poll to be valid, but it could hurt the authorities, said Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Research Centre in Baku. He said the authorities would be relieved of pressure to falsify the vote but might alter turnout figures.

"I don't think that 70-80 per cent of the public will go to polling stations and vote for Ilham Aliev or another candidate," said Orujlu.

Boyukaga Agayev is director of the South Caucasus analytical centre and editor of the website

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