Ilham against all, but not all against Ilham.

The people of Azerbaijan will go to the polls on 9 October to elect a President. The incumbent, Ilham Aliev is seeking a third term after the constitution was changed earlier to enable him to do so. As many as two dozen others have been provisionally registered to contest the election.

Who are they, and why this sudden rush to unseat Aliev? The odd answer is that whilst Aliev is running against them all, not all of them are running against him. In fact most of the people who have put forward their names represent parties and organisations that over the last decade have been loyal and vocal supporters of the Aliev Government. Their candidacy is part of an elaborate exercise aimed to reassure anyone who cares that the Azerbaijani elections were free and competitive, and to dilute the impact of the few who are really out to unseat Aliev.

The government was initially concerned that the opposition might boycott the elections altogether, and so competitive conditions had to be created artificially. Something similar happened in the 2008 elections, although the exercise on that occasion impressed no one.

There are two notable exceptions to this choreographed scenario. The traditional opposition led by Musavat and the Popular Front Party have gathered around them a coalition of groups and individuals, known as the National Council of Democratic Forces. This group initially backed the candidacy of Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, an Azerbaijani who has spent most of his life in Russia, and who is known as an award-winning film director. There were two snags: the first the residency restrictions made it likely that his candidacy will be rejected on this technicality. It was. His second problem was that he never made it to Baku, deciding instead to tour world capitals to gather support. There was a third issue with Ibrahimbeyov. Sources close to the Azerbaijani government had been suggesting for a number of months to visiting western officials that Ibrahimbeyov had been put up into running for President of Azerbaijan by the Kremlin, dissatisfied at Azerbaijan’s independent foreign policy. Things between Russia and Azerbaijan however were patched up during a mid-summer high-profile short visit of President Putin to Baku. If the Azerbaijani government sources were right, than Ibrahimbeyov was no longer necessary. Fortunately the National Council had a plan B, and they agreed on a reserve candidate, Jamil Hasanli who very soon became their lead candidate when Ibrahimbeyov’s candidacy was rejected.

A second opposition candidate is actually in prison awaiting trial. Ilgar Mammadov was jailed earlier this year accused of inciting anti-government demonstration in the region of Ismaili where local protests against abuse of power of local officials erupted in January. His candidacy is supported by the movement he chairs, REAL, and was approved by the CEC following some clarifications.

The Azerbaijani Central Elections Commission, an institution tightly controlled by the government, is now going through the process of verifying the lists of thousands of voters signatures that are required for a candidate to be formally registered and have his name on the ballot paper. By the end of this process the list of candidates is likely to shrink somewhat but there will still be plenty of names on the list. A choice of a sort is assured. But it will be an artificial situation that will not necessarily help the people’s choice. As happened in the previous two elections Ilham Aliev as the incumbent will be able to stay above the fry, whilst the rest fight it out between themselves in the short window of media exposure, leaving the Azerbaijani voter with a very confused picture. This is one of the many oddities of this election.

Meanwhile, ahead of the elections, the authoritative group, Human Rights Watch, have issued a damning 100 page report that documents “the dramatic deterioration of the government’s record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association in the past 18 months.” The report says that the authorities have arrested dozens of political activists on bogus charges, imprisoned critical journalists, broken up peaceful public demonstrations, and adopted legislation imposing new restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Human Rights Watch documented the arrest and imprisonment of several high-ranking members of opposition political parties, government critics with large followings on social media, and people who have frequently been involved in political protests. The report in full is available here

The government of Azerbaijan has dismissed the HRW report as slanderous and accused the organisation of making continuous efforts ill-intentionally and artificially to form a negative opinion about Azerbaijan. Elnur Aslanov, an official of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration said in his response to the report that “real facts are violently distorted, and world community is fooled openly”. His comments in full are available here

Report prepared by the CEW news team.