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People Ready to Protest a Dynasty

Many in Azerbaijan expect upheaval if the president's son wins today's election.

October 15, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Ilham Dadashov, an unemployed university graduate, hopes public protests will derail efforts by the ruling elite of this former Soviet republic to use today's presidential balloting to transfer power from father to son.

"There is little hope for the election results not to be falsified," predicted Dadashov, 22. "That's why demonstrations will be held. There will be huge demonstrations."

Supporters of Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev, 41, say he has enough support to win a majority in today's first round of voting to replace his ailing father, 80-year-old President Heydar A. Aliyev. The opposition argues that in this race among three main candidates, only a dishonest count could hand victory to the younger Aliyev.

Many expect clashes after the country's 5,200 polling stations close, as the ruling party and its opponents struggle over the tallying. Elections since President Aliyev came to power in 1993 have been viewed by foreign observers as blatantly rigged.

"We will protect our votes," Isa Gambar, 46, head of the opposition Musavat party and a leading candidate, declared Sunday to a rally of at least 40,000.

Named prime minister in August by his father's parliament, Aliyev has dominated the presidential campaign with extensive media coverage of his ceremonial activities, particularly on state-run television. He pledged to continue the elder Aliyev's policies, such as close cooperation with Western oil firms. His supporters see him as the standard-bearer for stability.

But pro-democracy activists condemn a dynastic succession.

"It's a great shame to live in a country where nothing depends on you and power gets handed over mechanically from father to son," said Leila Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank.

"If the regime is changed today, then the people who will take over will be secular in their world outlook and they will be oriented toward the West," she added. "If the regime is allowed to continue and exist for another five or 10 years, it will be hard to guarantee the same development scenario.... The first shoots of Islamic radicalism are already out there. Despite the strong police regime, this trend exists and these movements are growing."

While promising an open and honest count, the younger Aliyev has vowed to suppress any illegal protests. "We will not allow any riot or military coup to take place in Azerbaijan," he said at a Monday news conference.

Gambar charged at his own news conference that authorities "know that the nation will protest in case a false decision is announced, and that is why they are getting prepared to use acts of sabotage against the people.

"We know that they even plan to bomb some of the polling stations," Gambar said. "The purpose of this is on the one hand to blame these explosions on the opposition and, on the other, to have a pretext in their hands to declare an emergency situation in the country."

Gambar appealed to the armed forces "not to carry out any illegal orders."

As the mood of confrontation builds, foreign observers, including about 600 election monitors working under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, hope to ensure a vote accepted by all sides. They also may influence the final result by giving -- or withholding -- moral support if the opposition claims fraud and takes to the streets.

There have been no opinion polls accepted as credible by all sides. The Baku-based Center for Political and Economic Research, with support from the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based foundation that supports pro-democracy groups around the world, conducted a survey that showed 36% support for Gambar, 27% for Aliyev and 7% for Etibar Mamedov, 55, head of the Party of National Independence.

Under a new law, authorities must release vote tabulations for each polling station, and they must do so within 48 hours. The measure was adopted under foreign pressure and is designed to make it more difficult to manipulate the results. If no one wins a majority, the top two finishers face an Oct. 26 runoff.

"We've been giving the message to the opposition that the international community would not support them if there were any violent action from their side," said Peter Eicher, head of the OSCE observer mission.

"And we've been giving the government the same message: that they have a responsibility as the government to deliver a good election and ... they should not react violently to peaceful demonstrations."

Eicher said the OSCE mission, which includes several dozen Americans, would announce its observations at a Thursday afternoon news conference -- even if the findings put it smack in the middle of an unfolding struggle between the opposition and the government.

"I think we're going to be direct and honest in what we see, and what we say about what we see," he said.

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