Aliyev set for third election victory in Azerbaijan

Aliyev set for third election victory in Azerbaijan

BAKU – Hürriyet Daily News
Aliyev set for third election victory in Azerbaijan

A man walks past a board plastered with campaign posters of presidential contenders in Baku. The incumbent, İlham Aliyev, is expected to win heavily.

Azerbaijanis will today vote in presidential elections, which look certain to see incumbent strongman İlham Aliyev claim a third five-year term, in a political setting where the opposition is too fragmented and disunited to challenge him.

“Is there an alternative? If so, we would vote for it. But you see, there is no better candidate than President Aliyev,” an Azeri taxi driver said, praising his charisma and leadership in summarizing the prevailing public opinion. 

Aliyev took over the oil-rich country in 2003 after the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev. Since then, the Aliyev administration has been the target of a number of criticisms from the opposition. During elections, the opposition has accused the administration of engaging in ballot-stuffing and claimed the process lacked fairness, competitiveness or transparency.

A total of 10 candidates, including Aliyev, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party’s candidate, have registered to run for the elections. The leading challenger is Jamil Hasanli, a history professor and former lawmaker, who was nominated by a union of opposition parties, the National Coalition of Democratic Forces. Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov was the group’s first choice, but he was ruled out by the election commission after it was revealed he holds Russian citizenship.

“Hasanli pledged to create 5,000 jobs if elected … How will he do that?” a shopkeeper on the outskirts of Baku’s Azadliq Square said, criticizing the lack of a credible candidate against Aliyev. “The fragmented opposition has failed to challenge Aliyev just like previous elections.”

Hasanli, who is only expected to score single digits, has campaigned on a pledge to step down after two years if elected and switch the country to a parliamentary system. According to the results of a recent survey by the U.S. polling firm Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, voters showed an 86 percent approval rating for Aliyev. Among those who said they always vote, that number rises to a 90.5 percent. Aliyev received 88.7 percent of the vote in 2008 elections, while the other six candidates scored below 3 below of the vote. The charter allowed the president to stand two terms, but it was amended in 2009 to allow Aliyev to run again, a change the opposition deemed illegal. 

The executive director of the polling company, Barbara Fiala, told a group of reporters in Baku that Azerbaijanis were voting for a better economy, strong leadership and security. The survey of 1,000 likely voters was conducted in late August and early September. More than 1,000 foreign observers are expected to monitor the polls, primarily from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The opposition has serious concerns over the election process, as authorities arrested a series of activists and journalists ahead of the election. Parviz Gashimly, a journalist, human rights activist and member of the Popular Front opposition party, was arrested last month for illegal weapons possession after police raided his apartment and said they found firearms. Rights groups accuse Aliyev of curbing dissent and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan, a claim repeatedly denied by the officials as biased and one-sided.

The European Union has conveyed its concerns over the “politically motivated” arrests. In a joint statement, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and the commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Füle, noted on Oct. 3 their “concern at the continued pressure on a number of opposition activists, civil society and independent media, such as intimidations, arrests on dubious charges, detentions and sentencing without proper respect for international standards and rights of the accused.”

Wedged between Russia to the north and Iran to the south, energy-rich Azerbaijan will likely continue on the current path until 2018 without strong criticism from the West due its strategic position as a vital energy supplier to Europe.