Azerbaijanís First Lady Makes a Run For Parliament
By Fatah Abdullayev and Mina Muradova: 11/01/05

One of the highest-profile candidates in Azerbaijan ’s parliamentary election campaign is First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva. Supporters say her bid for parliament could mark the start of a political career that emulates that of US Senator Hillary Clinton. Detractors, meanwhile, argue that Aliyeva’s candidacy has more to do with political nepotism than her own political ambitions.

Earlier this year, districts in Baku and various regions throughout the country clamored for the right to host Aliyeva’s bid for parliament. By mid-August, the choice had been made. The governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), of which Aliyeva serves as deputy chairman, nominated the 41-year-old first lady in constituency #14 in Second Azizbeyov district, a popular summer get-away destination on the Apsheron Peninsula , close to Baku . The elections will be held on November 6.

In an October 22 interview with ANS TV , YAP Executive Secretary and Deputy Chairman Ali Ahmadov stated that "the real ability of candidates to gain the maximum confidence of voters in each constituency" was taken into consideration in making the selection.

While opinions concerning her husband, President Ilham Aliyev, may be polarized, Azerbaijan ’s stylish first lady enjoys widespread popularity for her charity work as head of the Heidar Aliyev Foundation. Nonetheless, some observers have charged that Aliyeva is being used as part of the ruling elite’s larger political game plan. Under this scenario, Aliyeva’s circle, known as “the Baku clan,” is attempting to gain seats in parliament from the rival Yeraz clan. Others see Aliyeva as following in the footsteps of Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, or of Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat of New York), wife of former US President Bill Clinton, who has launched an independent political career since leaving the White House.

Aliyeva herself claims that local residents in Azizbeyov nominated her not because of her official status, but for the work that she does. "Such an attitude towards me could not be formed in one or two meetings with voters,” she said in a recent interview with the Russian television channel RTR. “Most likely, my work in the Heidar Aliyev Foundation and previous activities give me credibility, which I will seek to justify.”

But traditional get-out-the-vote campaign methods do not characterize that process. Aliyeva has no campaign headquarters, and has not made a policy platform publicly available. The first lady’s election-related activities are coordinated by the Heidar Aliyev Foundation. Representatives of both the foundation and YAP refused requests by EurasiaNet correspondents to meet with Aliyeva and refused to answer any questions about her campaign or campaign appearances.

The first lady also started her campaign relatively late -- in mid-October. " [B]ut she has already had three meetings with residents of the Baku settlements Shuvelyan, Turkan, Zirya, Bina and others ,” constituency election commission chairman Mutallim Balagardashov said. “They started hanging her posters one week before the election, but everywhere in our district has already been covered by her campaign posters,"

An official biography on the first lady’s website ( http://www.mehriban-aliyeva.org - now apparently disabled) states that she graduated in 1988 from the First Moscow State Medical Institute and worked until 1992 at a scientific research institute for eye diseases in the Russian capital. In 2000, she was elected president of the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation and organized the 2003 and 2004 World Cup competitions and 2005 Callisthenics World Championship in Azerbaijan . Since 2004, Aliyeva has headed the Heidar Aliyev Foundation, which is engaged in charitable health care and educational programs. She has been named a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and won a string of awards in Russia and Azerbaijan for her charitable work.

The lack of information about Aliyeva’s policy positions, however, does not appear to be a concern for some voters. One 19-year-old student, who gave his name as Nihad, said that he has already decided for the first lady.

"Frankly, for me it does not matter that she does not have her own election program,” Nihad said. “Other candidates publish their platforms with many promises, which go into the trash after their election. Khanum Mehriban [an honorary title in Azeri] is not only a beautiful woman, but as people have said, she is also a clever person. “

Balagardashov said that five of the 10 candidates originally registered in the #14 constituency have withdrawn their candidacies, most of them shifting their support for Aliyeva. "In letters, they said that they withdrew their candidacy in favor of the first lady since they are confident of her victory," Balagardashov said.

Not all Azerbaijanis, however, see the first lady’s example as one to follow. Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli commented to EurasiaNet that "all Azerbaijan has become infected by the examples of Heidar Aliyev's family.” Kerimli was referring in particular to the transfer of presidential power in 2003 from Heidar Aliyev to his son Ilham.

Dozens of other candidates running in the election also have close family ties to government officials or well-known individuals. The son of Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbassov, the father of customs chief Kemalatdin Haidarov , the brother of Transportation Minister Ziya Mamadov, the brother of Caucasus Muslim Board Chairman Allahshukur Pashazade , and the brother of Baku police chief Maharram Aliyev are all running for parliament. One of the best known such candidates is the president’s uncle, Jalal Aliyev, an incumbent member of parliament.

YAP Deputy Chairman Siyavush Novruzov, however, rejects the allegation of political nepotism. "Running as a candidate is the individual choice of each person,” he said. “It does not depend on family connections and there is nothing reprehensible about it."

A statement on the first lady’s website suggests that she would only agree. "[T]here are neither big nor small parts to play [in life,]” Aliyeva reflects. “[Y]ou and your vocation . . . are unique."



Editor's Note: Fatah Abdullayev and Mina Muradova are freelance journalists based in Baku .

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An Azadlig party poster is glued to a bus station in Baku next to a store where a campaign poster for Azerbaijanís first lady Mehriban Aliyeva hangs in the window. (Sophia Mizante for EurasiaNet)