Azerbaijan election: the pre-determined president

Riot police detain a protester in Baku, 2 April Protests against the government have been stifled

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Azerbaijan elects a president on Wednesday in what human rights organisations say is a stifling atmosphere of intimidation.

Ilham Aliyev, who has run the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic since he succeeded his father 10 years ago, is standing for a third term.

During his presidency, allegations of high-level corruption, the subversion of democracy and the stifling of dissent have been rife, with reports of politically motivated arrests shooting up drastically in the last two years.

The pre-election period has, nonetheless, been a relatively calm one.

But it is "post-election disorder" that worries the authorities, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a recent report.

In custody

Riots over corruption in regions like Ismayilli and Quba in January were seen as a sign of major public discontent with regional governors and, in effect, the ruling elite.

In Ismayilli, the governor's son's car and hotel were set on fire after he reportedly insulted the residents.

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It was a small wave of unrest, but clearly worried the authorities and the repercussions continue. Ilgar Mammadov, a human rights defender and leader of the political movement ReAL who went to the region after the unrest erupted, was charged in February with causing mass unrest.

While his trial is pending, he put forward his candidacy for the elections - which was rejected due to "invalid signatures". Mr Mammadov is one of 14 people described by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan.

Human rights organisations put the number of political prisoners between the tens and the hundreds.

Seven of them are leading members of the youth movement Nida, who were detained in April while protesting against corruption and face charges of causing mass unrest and possessing illegal firearms.

They are known for their frequent posts on Facebook and Twitter about alleged government corruption and human rights abuses.

Azeri political analyst Rashad Shirinov told the BBC that Nida was "one of the most active and vivid youth forces" in the country and could have had an impact on the campaign had its leader not been arrested.

Around the same time as the Nida arrests, Dashgin Melikov, an asthmatic young activist critical of the government, was also charged with illegal drugs possession and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Until last week, he was a member of one of two major opposition parties, the Azerbaijani Popular Front.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (file image from 2012) Mr Aliyev has already served two terms

But then in an open letter he wrote from prison, Mr Melikov renounced his party and declared his support for Ilham Aliyev. His father told BBC Azeri that his son's illness was a factor in his decision - and that he had been promised freedom in return.

The government insists that nobody is imprisoned for their political activities, and that their activism does not mean that they are not criminals.

Yet according to Human Rights Watch, the Azerbaijani authorities use "spurious drug possession charges to lock up political activists critical of the government" ahead of the elections.

Contenders

The main competition to Ilham Aliyev comes from former MP Professor Jamil Hasanli, a candidate from the National Council opposition bloc. For the first time in more than two decades the in-fighting within the main opposition, already seen as weak, was put aside to choose a single candidate. According to Shirinov, this in itself is an achievement.

He says that there are a number of fake candidates, installed by the ruling elite to confuse the citizenry, to counter the opposition's candidate. "This is very visible during the TV debates when all other candidates attack Jamil Hasanli," he says.

A spokesman for the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, Aydin Mirzazadeh, dismisses these allegations, saying that every vote for another candidate is a vote against the government, and Azerbaijan's Central Election Committee (CEC) boasts of pluralism.

But one of the main election observers, the OSCE, has been critical of the election environment from the start, saying there has been little substantive debate, unjustified restriction of freedom of speech and imbalanced media coverage.

In addition to Ilgar Mammadov's disqualification, a second prominent candidate, popular cinematographer Rustam Ibrahimbayov, has been barred because of his dual Russian citizenship.

Three terms

Ilham Aliyev changed the constitution through a referendum in 2009 which got rid of the two-term limit for presidents, allowing him to stand for re-election this year.

The opposition, however, argues that the candidacy is invalid because the constitution was changed after Mr Aliyev was sworn in as president in his second term.

Prof Hasanli has formally complained to the CEC, with sources close to him saying the case will go "to the highest courts".

Observers believe there is only one conceivable outcome from the election - another term for President Aliyev.

Yet after the unprecedented outbursts of violence against corruption in Azerbaijan's regions, it is the period immediately after the election that will determine how popular Ilham Aliyev really is.

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