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President for life possible in Azerbaijan

12:58 AM October 09, 2013

BAKU—Parliamentarians, NGO personages, academicians, and media professionals from all over the world have gathered in this city to observe the presidential election that is taking place today.

President Ilham Aliyev is one of 10 candidates standing for election for a five-year term. Having served two terms, Aliyev is seeking an unprecedented third term after a March 2009 referendum lifted the two-term limit. A president may now serve an unlimited term, but needs to stand for election every five years.

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How do Azeris (the nickname the people use for themselves) view the possibility of a president for life? “If he is good and the people want him, he should be able to continue to serve,” one of them told us. “But he should stand for election every five years, because a president for life could become lazy—or corrupt.”

Yesterday, international election observers, including a delegation from the Philippines that included seven journalists, attended a briefing session to get a background on the election process and to meet some of the candidates.

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Giving us a background on the election process as well as representing President Aliyev was Mubariz Gurbanli, a member of Parliament and deputy executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.

Polls open at 8 a.m. today and will stay open until 7 p.m. An 18-member central election committee (CEE) oversees the entire process, with members divided equally among members of Parliament, representatives of the opposition, and civil society. But, said Gurbanli, once nominated to the CEE, a member can no longer belong to any political party.

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THERE are nine other presidential candidates, all representing political parties except for Zahid Oruj, a 41-year-old member of Parliament (the youngest in the lineup) and who is described as “self-nominated.”

Considered by some as the main opposition candidate is Jamil Hasanli, nominated by the National Council of the Democratic Forces, who however did not take part in the briefing for foreign observers. The National Council of Democratic Forces, according to a briefing document, is the main opposition party, but is described as “spirited but fragmented.” Hasanli is considered a compromise candidate after the original leader, Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibraginbekov, was disqualified last August by the CEE because he holds dual Russian-Azerbaijani citizenship.

Speaking in behalf of Aliyev, Gurbanli said the concededly impressive economic development that Azerbaijan has achieved since independence in 1993 will be the main factor in today’s voting. Shepherded at first by Aliyev’s father Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan made use of its oil and natural gas resources (mainly from the Caspian Sea) by forging agreements with a number of multinational oil and gas companies and has used the money to fuel economic and social development. Indeed, Ilham Aliyev has managed the feat of reducing poverty in his country in the last 10 years, during his last two terms. Poverty declined from 49.6 percent in 2001 to the current estimate of 5 percent.

Today, said Gurbanli, Azerbaijan sees itself as a “bridge” between East and West, forging a “sovereign and independent” foreign policy while reaching out to other Muslim-dominated countries, especially the Arabic countries now in turmoil.

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Of course, implicit in this vision is the reelection of Aliyev, who is in his early 50s and is thus seen as young enough to continue shaping the future of this resource-rich country.

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TWO days before the election, our group of Filipino observers visited three polling centers in this city, one in a technical university, another in a political science and arts university, and the last in a public high school.

The sight that greeted us brought us back to the days before the automation of Philippine elections. There were voting booths, curtained off and lined along the corridors, with the ballot boxes, actually transparent plastic containers, standing in the center.

CEE officials showed us the tally sheets and pointed out the CCTV cameras which, on voting day, will transmit the footage to the CEE central office for observation and documentation.

There were also posters of the ballots displayed on the walls. The names of the candidates were presented in alphabetical order, with a box beside each name where the voter can tick off his/her choice.

There were also posters depicting the process of staining each voter’s finger with indelible ink. The “ink” is actually a clear liquid, but when ultraviolet light is shone on the finger, a purple dye should appear.

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COUNTING should commence at 7 p.m., said Gurbanli, and observers are allowed to witness the election boards at work.

By midnight, Gurbanli assured, Azerbaijan should know who won the polls, even as exit polls will continue to track how the voting went. But the official results, he said, would be available only on Oct. 10.

We Filipino journalists are here on the invitation of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties and the Centrist Asia-Pacific Democrats International. The two organizations count former Speaker Joe de Venecia as among their founders. He was accompanied on this trip by his wife, Pangasinan Rep. Gina de Venecia.

Coordinating the hosting of the foreign observers is Asaf Hajiyev, head of international relations of the New Azerbaijan Party and a member of Parliament. But it is the interaction with common Azeris, some of whom are too young to have memories of Soviet occupation and have only vague remembrances of the hardships encountered during the transition, which has given us hope for its remaining challenges.

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TAGS: academicians, Azerbaijan, Gina de Venecia, Gurbanli, media professionals, National Council of the Democratic Forces, New Azerbaijan Party, NGO, President Ilham Aliyev, presidential election
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