Each night in Azerbaijan, thousands of families are tuning in on television to watch the next installment in what has become a de facto smash hit series – debates involving the 688 candidates in the November 7 parliamentary elections.
Some observers question whether the format for the televised debates allows candidates to reach voters with any meaningful message. Moderators do not ask questions. Rather, the candidates simply make statements that may or may not have anything to do with their policy ideas, or their opponents’ assertions.
Some pro-government candidates take aim at opposition leaders Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat Party, and Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, regardless of whether or not there is an opposition candidate on hand to respond.
The end result often appears to be more like a form of entertainment, commented Zafar Guliyev, an analyst for the opposition-friendly Turan news agency. “What happens on TV is mostly a show for them,” Guliyev said in reference to viewers. “They laugh at the candidates who cannot even read, get excited if one of the candidates uses rough language against another, count mistakes, or quote the best examples of … speeches … praising the government.”
The program starts each night with a promotional clip that includes footage of a rally for President Ilham Aliyev, chair of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party, which is running some 111 candidates for Azerbaijan’s 125-seat parliament. No other party’s rallies are shown.
The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a Baku non-governmental organization that has monitored media election coverage, finds that TV coverage overall has favored the governing party and its candidates – a trend also noted for the 2005 campaign. [Editor’s Note: The Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety receives funding from the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan, which is part of the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute, which is also part of the foundations network].
Azerbaijan’s largest opposition coalition – the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and Musavat Party – could only register 37 candidates out of a proposed 90; these individuals are featured only rarely in news coverage, or in paid commercials. Overall, more than 14 political parties and blocks are taking part in the election campaign.
Zeynal Mammadli, a Baku State University professor of journalism, says the televised debates do not give voters a chance to distinguish individual candidates and hear their views on significant issues. “What they call a debate was, in fact, giving four minutes of airtime to each candidate, so they can claim that all candidates got equal airtime,” Mammadli said.
Many of the speeches made in the candidate debates and campaign ads have gained popularity through redistribution on social networking websites, including Facebook and YouTube. A video featuring fur entrepreneur Akif Rahimov, a former independent candidate in Sumgait’s 43rd constituency, currently holds the top ranking among these clips, viewed by more than 20,000 people.
In the video, Rahimov describes the late leader Heydar Aliyev, the father of the incumbent president, as a captain who saved Azerbaijan, which he describes as a ship without a compass, lost in the “ocean” of the world. Rahimov’s melodramatic language and deadpan intonation have made the clip a Facebook comedy classic for many Azerbaijanis.
Rahimov has since withdrawn from the election and was not available for comment.
One media executive predicts that Azerbaijan’s TV stations might eventually take note of the popularity the clips enjoy on Facebook, and alter their programming lineups accordingly. “If we judge by the discussions in forums and social networks, and even by people in the streets, many prefer the election debates to entertainment,” said Elnur Baimov, owner of News.az and director of the international election information center. “However, we have to admit that these shows [the debates] are also viewed as entertainment. Mostly because the level of candidates is so low.”
Overall, public interest in the looming election appears to be low, in part because of changes to campaign rules, activists contend. A reduction in the length of the campaign period from 60 days in 2005 to 23 days this year, along with a ban on political rallies during the campaign, has “denied [voters] the opportunity to learn about their candidates,” said Anar Mammadli, head of the Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies.
As in the past, Azerbaijan’s campaign has also been heavily criticized by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for intimidation of voters to give their signatures for candidate registration, and for pressure brought on candidates themselves. Central Election Committee (CEC) Chair Mazahir Panahov criticized the election monitoring report for allegedly providing inaccurate information. The CEC did not receive any complaints about intimidation of voters or candidates, he claimed.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.