The road to Gunahir village, an isolated enclave of 2,500 in the Talysh Mountains, is little more than a muddy, rutted tributary of the river it follows. Tractors and trucks fail along the way, and travel is so slow that villagers say the old and sick have sometimes died as they were bounced and jostled on their way to hospitals in nearby Lankaran, a city only 25 miles north of the Iranian border.
As Azerbaijan prepares for a Nov. 6 parliamentary election, a test of the country's progress toward democracy, a new road is at the top of the wish list for residents of Gunahir. Without one, the villagers' fruit and vegetables will continue to turn to mush on the way to market, and Gunahir, 140 miles from the capital, Baku, will get none of the projected billions of dollars of economic development funds from a new pipeline projected to begin pumping Caspian Sea oil into world markets this month.
On the morning of Sept. 17, as women did laundry in streams that roar out of mountain gullies and baked bread in tandoor ovens, about two dozen men gathered in the center of Gunahir to meet Elshad Ibrahimov, one of 16 candidates hoping to represent the village's district.
Big, balding and physically vigorous, Ibrahimov, 36, tried to shake the men out of the cynicism and passivity that are endemic among voters here. He insisted they vote, even though their votes had been stolen in the past. And he promised that despite being a member of the ruling party, he would work harder than Hadi Rajabli, the parliament member he seeks to replace.
Ibrahimov's meeting with the voters offered a glimpse of a pioneering effort to establish a democratic process in this rugged and rural land. He is fighting the local establishment in a country that is ruled by an authoritarian president. He is also urging villagers to take power into their own hands within the remains of the old Soviet party system, long grafted onto a clan hierarchy.
Although President Ilham Aliyev has promised electoral reforms and international election monitors are pouring into the country to assess that progress, the fate of candidates at the grass roots such as Ibrahimov will determine whether this country can make real progress toward representative democracy.
Ibrahimov's battle pits him against a powerful regional governor and his associates. "They probably gave you orders to vote for Hadi Rajabli," he told the villagers, referring to local leaders. This candor was surprising to the villagers because Ibrahimov is a member of the ruling party.
"Ilham Aliyev is good, he's trying to feed people," Fakhraddin Kishiyev, a Gunahir resident, said of the president, who inherited power from his father through a widely criticized election in 2003. "But his team is terrible. Until young people come to power, nothing will change."
"The struggle between the local power brokers and satraps and the president is the invisible real politics," said S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. But others, he said, "are preoccupied with elections, the relation between the president and the parliament."
In previous elections, the government used an arbitrary registration process to disqualify candidates it feared or disliked. The current parliamentary contest became a free-for-all after strong international criticism forced Aliyev to announce on May 11 what he called important electoral reforms. He eased the registration process and called for his regional representatives to remain neutral.
Many opposition politicians dismiss the changes as cosmetic. Despite its promise of free and fair elections, they note, the government has already used violence to break up political rallies, most recently on Sept. 25.
But a genuine spirit of competition in the campaign survives. More than 2,000 candidates have registered to compete for 125 seats in parliament, and in some districts, dozens of names are on the ballot. "This is an indication of the trust of the society with respect to free and fair elections," Aliyev said in an interview.
The new openness has exposed rifts in the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. It has put forth a slate but hasn't prevented maverick members such as Ibrahimov from entering the race. Top administration officials, who have built fortunes through corruption, are said by independent analysts to be backing competing candidates. Some younger members of the ruling party, such as Ibrahimov, said they sensed quiet encouragement from some top officials in Baku to run against established figures such as Rajabli. In the interview, Aliyev said there might be changes to the party's roster based on how well different members did in the run-up to the election. "I think the party list which we have already published is composed of the most popular candidates," Aliyev said. "But maybe during the campaign we will have a different picture; then we will adjust ourselves to the situation."
Asked about complaints of intimidation and meddling by his regional governors, Aliyev said he had replaced many of them and denied there was a problem. He earlier issued a decree that the governors should remain neutral during the elections.
Others insist the regional governors still exercise almost dictatorial powers. "I am absolutely positive that complaints about Lankaran don't reach Aliyev's ears," Ibrahimov said. He said mail sent to the central government in Baku was opened in the governor's office and that the governor pressured him to withdraw from the race.
Baloglan Mirzoyev, head of a small private television station in Lankaran and another candidate running against Rajabli, is also battling the regional power structure. "If I try to report accurate information, about anything, the administration of Lankaran city will give an order to stop," he said. "They will order companies not to advertise, or they will order the electrical company to stop giving power to the station."
Mirzoyev said he, too, had been personally pressured by local authorities to drop out of the race. "Hadi Rajabli keeps saying, 'I have been personally appointed by the president,' " Mirzoyev said.
Candidates in other regions described in interviews similar flouting of the presidential directive for neutrality. One entrepreneur, Fatimat Agamireyeva, said she was forced to run in neighboring districts out of fear of retaliation by local officials against her carpet business. Candidates said they feared for the safety of their campaign workers, that posters were routinely ripped down by local police, and that local authorities threatened their jobs and the jobs of their family and friends. Another candidate, Igrar Jabberov, also from Lankaran, said he was promised a job if he dropped out.
In Kargolan village, near Lankaran, an opposition party member who questioned Rajabli at a meeting about high rates of unemployment in the district said he was physically roughed up and removed from the premises. That member, Sabir Aliev, is now supporting Ibrahimov.
According to Mirzoyev and other Lankaran candidates, Rajabli and his allies in the regional administration are using the new registration process (only 450 signatures are required to get on the ballot) to line up candidates from prominent local clans. Mirzoyev called this a gambit, to be followed by the candidates dropping out of the race in the final days of the campaign and throwing their votes to Rajabli. With 16 candidates competing in a district with about 29,000 voters, the 300 to 400 votes of a single family group can mean victory for a candidate.
In an interview in the parliament building in Baku, Rajabli dismissed complaints from his challengers. He accused Sabir Aliev, the man who questioned him about unemployment, of being engaged in illegal activities, including manufacturing defective and dangerous electronic parts. "A man like that, does he have a right to voice his opinion?" asked Rajabli.
He described his opponents: "One is a drunkard; everyone in the village knows that. Another person on the list is 67, and his wife ran off with all his property. He can't even run his own family. One took a loan and left without paying it off. Another one said he'd pay one dollar for every vote. Four out of 16 of them are jobless. Don't you think these people are simply incompetent?"
Rajabli said any pressure on candidates to drop out was natural in political life. "If they have potential, they should continue in the race," he said. "No one is beating them, or taking their property. They probably feel pressure because they are weak and cannot continue. They are probably smart to stop."
In Gunahir, Ibrahimov assured the villagers he would stay in the race and defend their interests. He suggested they choose a spokesman and challenge, if necessary, any tampering by electoral commissioners. He painted the current election as the last chance for Azerbaijan to reform before increased oil revenues brought the possibility of yet more corruption and an even more entrenched elite in Baku.
"If we give up this time," he said, "you'll never see your road rehabilitated."
But the power of local leaders makes it difficult for the villagers to enter the political process openly.
"When I say the roads are terrible, it's as if I become a member of the opposition," said Hajihasan Seyfullayev.