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Azerbaijan: President Aliyev Asserts His Authority on Eve of Parliamentary Elections

28 Oct 05

by Ben Wetherall

With less than two weeks until Azerbaijanis head to the polls in parliamentary elections generally regarded as crucial for the country's long-term development, President Ilham Aliyev has ordered the 125-seat Milli Maclis (unicameral parliament) to approve a number of measures that, theoretically at least, will dramatically improve the transparency of the voting procedures. The order calls on lawmakers to urgently approve legislation that will allow for the marking of voters' fingers with indelible ink, which will help cut down on voter fraud, particularly the practice of vote buying under an elaborate mechanism outside polling stations called "carouseling". Aliyev has also called on the parliament to pass legislation ensuring that voter lists will include voters' addresses and to sanction those Azerbaijani non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive more than 30% of their funding from foreign sources to monitor the vote.

Ensuring that the voter lists will include voters' addresses will give both domestic and foreign observers the opportunity to root out any attempts by local authorities to use certain mechanisms to assure victory by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) candidates, including the notorious practice of conjuring up "dead souls" by putting deceased people on the voter lists. Aliyev has publicly declared many times that he is personally committed to holding "free and fair" elections. Nevertheless, the ruling government has hitherto refused to accept all the demands of the opposition parties and the international watchdog group, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In particular, the Aliyev administration flatly refused to change the composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC), which remains dominated by pro-government members. This control is paramount, since the CEC appoints all of the district election officials, who in turn appoint all of the election officials at individual polling station. Given the deeply embedded patronage networks across the country, this essentially ensures that each YAP candidate can rely on local election officials to turn a blind eye to any electoral fraud.

Having been already heavily criticised for their willingness to accept the results of the October 2003 election, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and Western embassies are increasingly "squeezing" President Aliyev on issues such as cadre changes, transparent elections, and political reforms. In many ways, the United States and the European Union (EU) view the November parliamentary elections as the "last, best chance" for Azerbaijani democracy under Aliyev.

However, Aliyev's demands on parliament follow closely on the heels of a purge of some notable government officials. This suggests that the president believes now is the moment to assert his authority over the various government factions, and is preparing himself to launch an assault against the entrenched older ruling elite, who remain determined to maintain a firm grip on the country's lucrative patronage networks. Ironically, the first casualty of the purge was Farhad Aliyev (unrelated to President Aliyev), the powerful economy minister, who was regarded as one of the government's key economic reformers. This did not augur well for the election, and indicated that President Aliyev may have been forced into making a number of concessions to the old ruling elite. However, the motives for the removal of Farhad Aliyev and his brother Rafik Aliyev, who runs Azpetrol (the country's largest private oil company), seem tied to a personal dispute between them and Kiamaleddin Geydarov, the chairman of the state customs committee and close friend of President Aliyev, over economic influence, rather than the first salvo in the battle between the reformers and the conservative wings in the YAP.

One day after the removal of the Aliyev brothers—who were accused of plotting a coup d'etat with Rasul Guliyev, the exiled leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan—President Aliyev promptly moved against some influential members of the old guard that had been close to his father, former president Heydar Aliyev. Health Minister Ali Insanov, one of the founders of the YAP, and Akif Muradverdiyev, the powerful chief of Presidential Apparatus responsible for financing the state-run Khalg Gazeti newspaper, were the most notable victims of Aliyev's purge, but also included Social Security Minister Ali Nagiyev, Education Minister Misir Maradanov, and Fikret Sadigov, head of state-owned Azerkimya (the country's largest chemical company). Isanov and Muradverdiyev were the two most prominent members of the Yerazi clan, which, along with Ilham Aliyev's own Nakhichevani clan, has dominated politics in Azerbaijan for several decades. As one of the unofficial leaders of the Yerazi, Insanov presided over the powerful "Ararat" movement, essentially a vehicle to spread the clan's influence at the national level, particularly over the country's health system. All of those removed were viewed by the vast majority of the electorate as being clearly corrupt; by dismissing them, Aliyev and the reformers within the YAP have offered them a sweetener ahead of the vote.

While those within the government advocating economic liberalisation and the transition to democracy have been strengthened by Aliyev's purge, the president himself is the main beneficiary. Having been slammed for placing U.S. strategic interests before its commitment to democracy after the October 2003 election (when Washington was notably lacking in its condemnation of the regime), the Bush administration is under pressure this time to ensure that observable improvements are made in the conduct of the election. The introduction of the amendments to the election law, along with Aliyev's recent overtures, has made the U.S. position more comfortable. In addition, Aliyev has left the opposition and the remaining old elite—such as Interior Minister Ramil Yusupov, Defence Minister Safar Abiyev, and above all the "grey cardinal" of Azerbaijani politics, the head of the Presidential Administration, Ramiz Mekhtiyev—on the defensive. There is a strong possibility that the YAP may not survive these elections. The fa├žade of unity has been blown away by the removal of Isanov and his allies. At the same time, President Aliyev cannot afford to be complacent. While he will naturally install loyal allies into the vacated ministries, there is a danger that after the elections, those remaining members of the old elite may believe that their cause is better served by coming to an arrangement with the opposition and lining up against the Aliyev government.

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