The posters hanging throughout Baku for seven presidential candidates are one of the few reminders that October 15 is election day in Azerbaijan. The victor, many voters believe, is a foregone conclusion: incumbent President Ilham Aliyev.
A recent report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation Mission noted that "a perceived lack of genuine competition" has limited public interest in the election. A selection of likely voters interviewed by EurasiaNet indicated that many Baku residents remained undecided about whether or not to vote and, if so, for whom. Some younger voters said that they were inclined to vote just to prevent the chance that "our vote will be illegally used, even if we know in advance who will win."
While the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) is campaigning actively for President Aliyev, the other six candidates' campaigns are far more low-key. Aliyev posters dominate Baku, seen in shop windows as well as on specially allocated billboards. Throughout the campaign, Aliyev has toured Azerbaijan's regions to open new public buildings and businesses, and to discuss his campaign platform.
On October 14, Reporters Without Borders expressed concern that the state broadcaster AzTV has given a disproportionately high share of coverage to Aliyev, regularly airing special reports on his campaign trips after news programs. "This editorial practice gives the incumbent an undue advantage during an election campaign, especially when the other candidates' activities are not being covered," the report found.
Organizations conducting media monitoring during the campaign reported that most media outlets devoted a significant part of their political and election news coverage to the incumbent and to the government's activities. Observers noted that media interest in the elections had declined as a reflection of the lack of public interest and the general passivity of the candidates themselves.
According to monitoring conducted by the Yeni Nesil journalists' association, in conjunction with the Council of Europe and European Commission, more than 70 percent of TV broadcast time and 97 percent of all materials in pro-government print media focused on either President Aliyev or the government. Opposition newspapers, meanwhile, target 49 percent of their coverage on government critics and 29 percent on opposition candidates.
"The monitoring shows that materials about the incumbent president dominated all TV channels and print media. Even if they are not related to the presidential elections, they are devoted to the official activity of the head of state or the ruling party's members," Yeni Nesil's head, Arif Aliyev, said in an October 6 presentation.
One senior presidential administration official sharply disagrees with the general perception that mass media outlets have heavily favored the incumbent. "Political pluralism is fully restored in Azerbaijani media and there is no censorship in the media," Ali Hasanov, the head of the presidential administration's Public and Political Affairs Department, told journalists on September 24. "We deny such remarks. We do not accept such opinions, regardless of whether the authors of such statements are the OSCE, the Council of Europe or other international organizations."
The OSCE/ODIHR mission has stated that it has received indications that people have occasionally been obliged to attend YAP rallies. The mission also asserted that the Baku city government embraced an overly "restrictive" interpretation of the Law on Freedom of Assembly by refusing to allow adherents of opposition parties to gather in central Baku to stage a protest rally.
Reports have also circulated that employees of government organizations, institutions and schools have been instructed to cast ballots. On October 8, the opposition-friendly Turan news agency reported that the governing party had set up groups of individuals who would encourage others to vote. The opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat also reported on October 7 that Azerbaijani schools had been given instructions from the presidential administration via the Education Ministry to ensure that more people show up at the polls.
Yeni Azerbaijan's executive secretary, Ali Ahmedov, denied the allegations. "Our activists are just calling on people to participate in the elections, but would never force them to do so," Ahmedov said.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's leading opposition parties have again urged the public to boycott the election. "It should be clearly visible that Ilham Aliyev will be declared president not on the basis of votes cast by the population, but on the basis of fake reports by fake election commissions. By boycotting this political game, you will contribute to the development of real democracy in the country," the opposition Yeni Musavat paper quoted the five groups that make up the boycott coalition -- Musavat, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party, the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, the public forum For Azerbaijan, and the Citizen and Development Party -- as saying.
Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov has offered assurances that the elections will be "democratic, free and transparent." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Commonwealth of Independent States observers have expressed satisfaction with preparations for the vote, citing in particular the installation of web cameras in polling stations. "The Azerbaijani authorities are making every effort for holding objective and transparent presidential elections," Sergei Lebedev, CIS executive secretary and head of the CIS observation mission, told journalists in Baku on October 14.
More than 1,200 international observers from more than 60 countries have been registered by the CEC to follow the vote. CEC Chairman Panahov put the combined number of observers at about 48,000 and asserted that "favorable conditions" are in place for their work.
Mina Muradova is a freelance journalist based in Baku.