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Azerbaijan: Presidential Election Concerns

Following disputed presidential elections in Georgia and Armenia earlier this year, as well as state of emergencies declared in Tbilisi and Yerevan, all eyes are now on Azerbaijan as it prepares to go to the polls. Few expect anything but a second term in office for the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, in the 15 October presidential election and bloggers seem to agree.

Thoughts on the Road, for example, says that the vote is not so much a contest, but merely a formality.

The election season has begun here – with posters […] plastered on walls around the city. The posters remind me of those that I saw in Russia before the election there, depicting “ordinary citizens” who are apparently going to exercise their civic duty and go vote.

The president also has some posters up, just a photo of himself and a short phrase that identifies himself as candidate. I haven't seen posters for any other candidates.

[…]

The last issue of Zerkalo carried on page two an article that depicts the contrasting situations for the the New Azerbaijan Party (the ruling party) and its opponents. YAP, as it is known from its Azerbaijani initials, held its meeting in a stadium. Attending the meeting thousands of government workers, who were essentially required to attend.

The opponents of the governments, however, were only able to get permission to meet at a remote location.

The View from Baku, however, reports that the situation is somewhat better in the broadcast media with presidential debates being aired each night on TV. Nevertheless, the blog notes, that is not to say the situation is to be welcomed, especially when the incumbent is represented by a stand-in and there is no discussion.

The Central Election Commission here in Baku mandated that candidates be given three hours of debate time on television and, on alternating days, three hours on radio. That’s six hours a week, every week, until Election Day, October 15th! But to call it a “debate” is a disservice to the word. […]

Each gets exactly 8 minutes and 35 seconds to speak his, or in the case of the surrogate for the incumbent president, her mind. […]

With the main opposition parties boycotting the vote, a new blog established especially for the election, Azerbaijan's Presidential Election, explains why there are concerns about the state of democracy in the country.

It is easy to say in the last election when Ilham Aliyev was elected president, there was widespread fraud. When Haydar Aliyev was elected president, he put his own family members into governmental positions. So it was not surprised that after Haydar past away, his son Ilham took power. Much of the public was not okay with this because it was known that he was into gambling and drinking, rather than running a country.

Fraud was noticed right for when citizens went to place their vote.

[…]

When the results were released, a war or coup did not occur, but rather rallies so violent that there was physical brutality, arrests, and death. […]

Quirk Global Strategies, the blog of a former head of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Azerbaijan, apologizes to its readers for not posting more about the election. However, it notes, there is probably little point. The blog blames geopolitical interests in the region for the situation.

[…] I really should be posting on the Azerbaijan Presidential election because there are few people there who were there in 2005 (just as there were few there in 2005 who lived through 2003) and who can interpret the spin that will emerge from both the USG and GovAZ. On the other hand, the election matters not one bit and what anyone has to say about it matters even less. There are forces at work in that country greater than any of us.

Citing the failure of the West to prevent a short but devastating war between Georgia and Russia, the blog concludes that unless the international community changes its approach, trouble looms on the horizon. The blog speculates that this might even include renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.

I’m sure the “obsevers” in town for the “election” will put together a thorough report that demonstrates how much better this election was than the last one (that was our strategic objective in 2005, as well). Everyone will point out how weak the opposition is and that Aliyev would have won anyway and that he’s the best bet for regional stability. Then, when Aliyev does something insane (a la Saakashvili, and it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with insane moves he might consider), or is overthrown by a gang of competing kleptocrats, because U.S. “democracy support” programs in the Caucusus favor personalities over institutions, everyone will panic.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how the Azerbaijani blogosphere responds to the election. With blogging coming of age in Armenia after its presidential election and in Georgia after its war with Russia, the same might also be true for Azerbaijan.

Writing on his Window on Eurasia blog, citing Global Voices Online posts on the situation with blogs in the region, and specifically an interview with one Azerbaijani new media specialist, analyst Paul Goble agrees.

Emin Huseynzade, a blogger activist from Azerbaijan, described an analogous situation in his homeland, where there are more than 8,000 bloggers. Initially, most wrote in Russian but now 80 percent do so in Azerbaijani, a shift in language that has gained them a larger audience […].

[…]

If Huseynzade is right that the number of blogs in Azerbaijan will double or triple over the next two years, then blogs will come into their own, playing a political role in that country as they do in Georgia, Armenia and elsewhere and possibly becoming a target of expanded attention by others who want to control or exploit this new medium.

As was the case in Armenia where blogs became the new samizdat — time will tell soon enough if the same happens in Azerbaijan.

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