The elections see the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) of President Ilhan Aliyev take on a wide range of opposition candidates, with some 1550 registered candidates competing for just 125 seats in parliament.
Aliyev is the son of former President Haydar Aliyev, who died in 2003, and who had been a powerful force in Azeri politics since the late 1960s, when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
The main opposition block, Azadlig, a coalition of three parties, has already cried foul in the run-up to balloting.
Speaking to the press on 3 November, Azadlig leader Ali Kerimli said the elections had seen “limited access to media” by the opposition, while its rallies “were banned, as well as meetings of candidates with their voters”.
“At every rally attempt, we had about 200 of our supporters arrested [and] hundreds beaten. Candidates were threatened, and made to withdraw.”
The government has denied any wrongdoing and says it has acted only to secure law and order. It also says clampdowns have focused on what the Interior Ministry calls “the radical opposition”, accused by the government of trying to organise a coup d’etat.
More balanced elections?
Yet the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is in the country to observe and report on the elections, has also complained of bias on TV in favour of the government party.
In their 21 October report on the elections, they also said there had been “widespread police arrests and intimidation of opposition party members and supporters”.
The Azeri authorities say they
Despite the complaints, however, many observers expect that the elections will be more balanced than the 2003 elections which saw President Aliyev elected to power.
That election was criticised by independent Azeri and international monitors as fraudulent.
Nevertheless, Daniel Blessington of the Washington-based IFES, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to building democratic societies and currently providing technical support to the election authorities, is hopeful the ballot will go ahead smoothly.
“The technical preparations have for the most part been good,” he told Aljazeera.net.
Urdur Gunnarsdottir of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also told Aljazeera.net: “There is definitely the possibility of having a good election tomorrow.”
Yet Gunnarsdottir also stressed ODIHR’s concerns over the conduct of the election campaign and complaints of pressure on candidates.
In recent days, many candidates have withdrawn – more than 500 since registration closed – with many reporting death threats against them.
The ballot forms had also already been printed before many withdrew, leaving open the question of how their names will be removed from the voting forms – and who will do the removing.
“You should expect some protest actions. You can also expect some violent suppression of these [protests] if the international community does not react”
At the same time, there are also concerns over one of the technical aspects of the voting, which will see voters’ fingers daubed with invisible ink as a measure against fraud. This was only agreed to last week, giving the electoral authorities a challenge in preparing polling stations with ink and the scanners used to detect it.
On the streets of Baku, meanwhile, most expect the YAP to win another majority – the only question is how large the opposition vote might be, and how opposition parties might react to defeat.
“The outcome can be predicted easily,” says Leila Aliyeva, a Baku-based independent political analyst. “But what is important is how will society in Azerbaijan react and how will the international community react.
“You should expect some protest actions. You can also expect some violent suppression of these if the international community does not react.”
Among ordinary voters, there is also often a feeling of disillusion with the balloting process. More than one-third of the population is below the official poverty line of $42 a month.
“Azerbaijan is a rich country,” says Mazahir Abazade, a hotel worker in Baku. “There is oil everywhere. Yet the people are poor, except for the few. What difference will it make who wins? Will they change that?”
The ballot is likely to determine the answer to that question – how is the country’s new-found oil wealth going to be used?
With Azerbaijan‘s Caspian Sea fields now pumping oil to Western markets via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Caucasian republic is likely to see a major boost in its income in the years ahead.
Azeri President Aliyev came to
About $150 billion in oil revenues is expected over the next 20 years, meaning a massive jump in income for a country that this year had a state budget of just $4 billion.
“Control of these oil revenues is the most important thing about these elections,” said Aliyeva.
“Will they be distributed according to a democratic and transparent system, or via the old method of patronage and privilege?”
The control and distribution of oil wealth will shape Azerbaijan’s future economic prosperity.
“Management of the oil revenues is crucial for the years to come,” says Farda Asadov of the Open Society Institute’s Azerbaijan Assistance Foundation.
“For the generations of Azeris to come, there needs to be transparent and democratic control of revenues. Yet I haven’t heard any of the parties set out clearly what they are going to do with this revenue.”