Sowing seeds of democracy in post-Soviet granite

From his parents' dining room, Vugar Mammadov is building a campaign as an independent candidate for the Nov. 6 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. Hovering around him, Mr. Mammadov's campaign manager and a small volunteer staff drink tea made by his mother while they brainstorm ideas for his campaign posters. They need a new slogan.

The decorations in this dining room - family crystal, pictures of Mammadov in Europe from his days as a diplomat, a Kerry-Edwards poster, and English- language books on leadership - symbolize his campaign: home grown, proud, and cross-cultural.

Mammadov's first challenge is large: to foster a culture of campaigning in a country that has not yet experienced truly free elections. With a brand new American master's degree in international relations in hand, Mammadov has returned home with the energy necessary for this task. There are others like him. In his mid-thirties, he is one of many young candidates running as independents in the coming election.

Mammadov knows that the Republic of Azerbaijan faces major challenges beyond its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region claimed by both states. It must manage the revenue and infrastructure of the Caspian Oil Basin while avoiding the effect of a rentier oil economy, whereby governments run on oil revenue - and citizens, who are not taxed, do not have proper representation. This effect has caused political and economic turmoil in many oil-producing states, namely neighboring Iran. Mammadov sees the success of the growing oil economy as very much linked with these elections. A more representational parliament will ensure that Azerbaijan stays the course of distributing oil revenues not only to military infrastructure but also to social services.

Democracy is spreading throughout Eurasia, symbolized by revolutions in former Soviet states - "Rose" in Georgia, "Orange" in Ukraine. Even in far-off Kyrgyzstan, authoritarian leaders face the calls for democracy, transparency, and an end to governmental corruption. Azerbaijan is also on the path toward democracy, but future leaders like Mammadov hope for a democratic evolution - not a revolution.

In efforts to help democracy blossom naturally, Mammadov is working to establish professional standards for campaigning. While attending a meeting at the Azerbaijan American Education Center, he asked the students to join his campaign, but warned them that they will not be paid. This is volunteering, he explained. Most of the students were surprised by his pitch - they had never worked for no pay - but a few expressed interest in enhancing their applications to American graduate schools and gave Mammadov their cellphone numbers.

Mammadov is often tired from late-night phone calls with uncles and cousins who offer money to his campaign - but they are only vague offers. He explains that pledges are specific amounts of money. But most do not offer these specifics. It has never been done before.

Finances are a concern in any election, but especially in Azerbaijan where incumbents and wealthy candidates have offered to pave roads and build water pumps before voters cast their ballots. Mammadov argues that these promises only foster the perception that politicians are corrupt.

Getting elected is challenging when access to voters is limited. In Baku, candidate's posters could only be placed in small slots on bulletin boards that line the streets. And in Mammadov's district, there were only 14 slots for the 16 candidates (which is one of many districts; this November there will be about 2,000 candidates for 125 seats).

Reaching voters through television is also difficult. Although satellite dishes accessorize both modern high-rises and Soviet style block-long apartment buildings, Azerbaijan's 8 million citizens do not have access to local television. It is therefore difficult to reach a subset of the population. To manage this problem, Mammadov has set up a phone bank to inform voters in his district when his four-minute video clip will appear on TV this week.

In this environment, it's no wonder that distinguishing himself from the other candidates is what Mammadov calls "a nightmare." Campaigning is often grueling - in the summer heat he canvassed door-to-door to learn about the 38,000 neighbors he hopes to represent, as demographic information for his district was not readily available.

But he remains upbeat and has continued the conversation with his district through street meetings equipped with a microphone. And although his voice grew hoarse, he gained a sense of the important issues - ranging from education to pension plans - for the underrepresented middle class.

Heading into next week's elections, Mammadov's personal election observers (a legal right) will be his eyes and ears. He was pleased to watch Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, support the idea of using ink on fingers to ensure one vote per person in a national television address last week, and is encouraged that more than 70 percent of the population is expected to vote.

On the cusp of both political and cultural change, the Nov. 6 elections will say a lot about the future of Azerbaijan - an American friend, an oil-producing state that will continue to benefit from the rising price of a barrel, and a Muslim country moving toward democracy. The elections will also say a lot about candidates like Mammadov - idealistic, hopeful, running not only to win but also to build a culture of democracy at home from the ground up. Win or lose in November, something has definitely been won.

Lauren Brodsky, is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School in Medford, Mass., focusing on US public diplomacy and the regions of Southwest and Central Asia.

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