Azerbaijan presidential vote may reveal cracks in regime support

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/3488073357/
In oil-rich Azerbaijan, people vote for president Wednesday in an election that holds little suspense.  An Aliyev – either father, Haydar, or son, Ilham – has ruled Azerbaijan for 32 of the last 44 years.Ilham Aliyev has steadily increased his share of the vote during his decade as Azerbaijan’s president.  In 2003, he received 76 percent of votes cast.  In 2008, he received 87 percent.  In the last parliamentary election, his supporters took all the seats.All the same, state-of-the-art web cameras have been installed in polling stations.  Hundreds of election observers have flown to Baku, largely from other former Soviet republics.Khadija Ismayilova, an opposition journalist, says there is a new word for this kind of regime.“Democratatorship – dictatorships pretending to democracies,” she said from Baku.  “I think that word suits Aliyev’s regime very well.”

There are opposition candidates.  But human rights activists say their access to state television is limited and their public meetings are restricted by local authorities.

When echoes of the Arab Spring reached the shores of Caspian Sea, Azeri police moved fast to break up youth protests coordinated via Facebook.  Human rights workers say that Azeri jails now hold 142 political prisoners.

Giorgi Gogia tracks the clampdown on political freedom in Baku for Human Rights Watch.

“We have seen very limited freedom of expression, very limited and restricted criticisms of the country’s leadership, even furthermore a serious crackdown, detention, harassment, imprisonment and conviction of political critics in the country,” Gogia said from neighboring Georgia.

During the last two years, serious riots caused extensive damage in two provincial cities.  More recently, thousands of people demonstrated in the capital, Baku, last month, calling on President Aliyev to resign.

Lawrence Sheets visits Baku frequently from his base in Georgia, where he is the South Caucasus Project Director for the International Crisis Group.

“The run-up to the election in Azerbaijan has been surprisingly nervous from the standpoint of the authorities,” he said.  “Because they say that President Aliyev, if you speak to his aides, they claim that he has at least 70 percent support, 80 percent, sometimes they will say 90 percent,” said Sheets.

Two polls taken last month indicate that 85 percent of voters back President Aliyev.  It is hard to judge the accuracy of polls in the country’s closed political environment.  But it is clear that the president has a strong base of support.

Due to high oil prices and increased production, the Azeri economy has grown almost 10-fold during the decade of Ilham Aliyev’s rule.

According to Sheets, “People’s standard of living has risen significantly from what it was 20 years or even 10 years ago. That’s noticeable. Not just in Baku, but even the countryside and in the provincial cities. If you crisscross the country, you can tell people are living better.”

Ismayilova, however, says that Azerbaijan’s wildly skewed income distribution angers many voters.  She has suffered harassment for her reports detailing the ruling family’s hold on lucrative monopolies inside Azerbaijan and its multi-million-dollar investments in Dubai and the Czech Republic.

Wednesday’s presidential election – a once-every-five-years event – may reveal whether serious cracks are developing in the Aliyev family’s hold on Azerbaijan.

Source: VOANews.com
(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/3488073357/)

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James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.