Azerbaijanís Parliamentary Election: When is an Independent Candidate Truly Independent?
By Rovshan Ismayilov: 10/31/05

When is an independent candidate truly independent? Lots of likely voters in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections on November 6 are struggling to determine the answer to that question.

As of late October, roughly 800 of the estimated 1,550 candidates campaigning for the 125 parliamentary seats at stake are classified as independents, implying that they do not support, or are not affiliated with any particular political party or coalition. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Another 172 candidates did not list a party affiliation when registering to run in the election.

In practice, the term "independent" in the Azerbaijani political context can be deceiving. Political observers in Baku say there are lots of partisans masquerading as independents. For example, Etibar Huseinov, a professed non-partisan candidate running for parliament in the #101 Shamkir-Dashkesan constituency, insists that he is "a really independent person." Nevertheless, Huseinov is the political news announcer for the pro-government Lider (Leader) television channel and has a reputation for harshly criticizing the opposition and advocating state policy positions.

Almost one-third (37 members) of the sitting parliament were elected as independents in 2001. However, in practice virtually all of the independent MPs have followed the governing party's line and have supported President Ilham Aliyev's administration. Out of the current parliament's 125 members only eight can be characterized as opponents of the Aliyev administration.

The majority of the so-called partisan independent candidates running in this campaign are members of, or have close ties to the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP). Indeed, in some constituencies the field is crowded with governing party members or supporters. For example, 11 out of 26 candidates running in the #8 Binagadi First constituency of Baku are YAP members. Some experts see the race as boiling down to a contest among Musa Musayev, the incumbent MP, and Elshad Abdullayev, rector of the private Independent Azerbaijan University, along with Panah Aliyev, head of Baku's central hospital. All three contenders are YAP members, and it is not immediately clear which candidate enjoys official party support. YAP has the largest official slate of candidates in the election, backing about 320 candidates. But the party is actively supporting only 100 or so of its members.

In many instances, YAP leaders have called on party members to drop out of parliamentary races in order to prevent the splitting the pro-government vote. Party leader Bahar Muradova characterized this candidate consolidation as a "positive step which shows the respect of the party's membership to the leadership's decision."

Another facet of the campaign that clouds the ability to classify parliamentary hopefuls is the existence of so-called "technical candidates," experts say. "Techicals" are nominally non-partisan candidates who are used by both YAP and opposition parties in an attempt to gain political advantage. Each candidate has the right to have monitors at the polling station on election day. So, the YAP uses technicals to increase the number of ruling party supporters at voting precincts, where they can potentially be used to harass voters backing opposition candidates, or attempt to influence the ballot-counting process, observers say. Meanwhile, the opposition relies on technicals to boost the number of its monitors at polling stations.

Those candidates who are genuinely non-partisan fall into several categories. Many are successful entrepreneurs who seek MP status to satisfy their own out-sized egos and because it offers immunity from criminal prosecution. There are also a significant number of representatives of non-governmental organizations and journalists. Yet another subset of independents can be identified as former members of the bureaucracy who are seeking a way to get back into government. There are also several candidates drawn from the ranks of pensioners and the unemployed.

Out of all the candidates who are unaffiliated, only a small percentage can be considered dedicated politicians. In most cases, such candidates tend to be young people who have developed sound personal skills in the business world, or in other endeavors. Two examples are Balakishi Gasimov, 27, a business consultant who gained notoriety by becoming the champion of a popular game show called "Brain Ring," and Ayten Shirinova, 27, the former director of the Council of Europe's Information office in Baku.

Both were drawn to politics, they say, by a desire to improve social and economic conditions, combined with dissatisfaction over the country's current general direction. Shirinova, who is running in the #29 Sabail constituency in Baku, said YAP and opposition candidates were not concentrating on issues, but on outmaneuvering each other. "There is a need for really independent candidates," Shirinova said. "Both the ruling party and the opposition only deal with each other. They do not care about ordinary voters."

The genuine independents are often constrained by small campaign budgets, forcing them to engage in old-style politics - going door-to-door to meet with potential voters, instead of relying solely on splashy campaign rallies and a media blitz to secure votes. Gasimov, who is seeking the seat of the # 23 Nasimi-Sabail constituency of Baku, estimated that he has visited with at least 1,000 families in his district. He added that his total campaign expenditures would not exceed $15 000. "While working as a business consultant, I accumulated savings that I can spend on my campaign now. My brother has decent salary in large private company. My friends and relatives also made donations to my campaign," he said.

"I could have asked for sponsorship and have been sure that some political and financial circles would have helped," Gasimov continued. "But I did not do it, so that I could keep my independence."

Shirinova organized two fund-raisers. "The first time among my inner circle—close friends and relatives—I collected $3,300 and spent [it] on the printing and distribution of posters, and the maintenance of a campaign office," Shirinova said. "The second time, I [tapped] people who had become familiar with my campaign and [had noticed] my high rating and wished to support me on their own. This one generated about $2,000, which I am going to spend for TV and print media advertising."

Independent candidates are frequently the target of attacks from both the YAP and opposition parties. "I have problems from both camps," Shirinova said. "The opposition media has mounted a black PR campaign against me. But local authorities pull down my campaign posters, using police officers to perform the task. Low-level local bureaucrats also are helping the YAP-promoted candidate in my constituency."

Gasimov said he had not faced any pressure or problems so far. "Mostly it is because I am not conducting big meetings, only a door-to-door campaign. And most of my rivals do not believe in the efficiency of this method," he said. "However, my rivals use administrative means and both opposition and ruling party's candidates criticize me in media."

Despite the limitations and the obstacles, Gasimov and Shirinova believe they still have a shot at winning their respective races. "Society grown tired with political squabbles and people open their doors to me only when I tell them that I am non-partisan," Gasimov says.

"Independent candidates now have the best chance to win in Azerbaijani history," Shirinova said. "In the case of free and fair elections, independents could win between 20 and 30 seats in parliament."

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance contributor based in Baku.

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Vugar Mammadov (second from right) is one of the almost 1,000 independent parliamentary candidates hard on the campaign trail, meeting with voters, visiting polling stations and working with election volunteers less than a week before election day. (EurasiaNet photos by Sitara Ibrahimova)