BAKU (Reuters)–Just two days before Azerbaijan’s first-round presidential election–President Haydar Aliyev’s top rival bitterly accused the government of being corrupt and vowed to make the country’s humbled army a killing machine.
Etibar Mamedov–a former Soviet dissident who has run a highly polished campaign–launched his most ruthless attack yet on Aliyev in front of 2,000 cheering supporters braving cold–wind and rain in central Baku.
He said 75-year old Aliyev–who has dominated Azeri politics for most of three decades and enjoys an official personality cult–had robbed the nation and was "sick with the disease of power."
"A thief could run the country better than this. We must use only legal means to remove these bloodsuckers," the rotund–mustachioed Mamedov shouted from the balcony of the National Drama Theater–decked out in national flags.
Government corruption is believed to be rife in the Caspian Sea oil state of eight million people–which has signed $40 billion in contracts with foreign firms to develop its reserves of offshore crude oil and gas. The new contracts have not raised the living standards of many Azeris who remain very poor.
Mamedov dedicated much of his hour-long speech promising to rebuild Azerbaijan’s military–humiliated at the hands of Armenian forces in fighting over Karabakh in 1988-94.
Incompetence and internal divisions are blamed for Azeri losses which totaled twenty percent of the country’s territory–now in the hands of the ethnic Armenia’s.
"I will not ask our sons to die for their motherland. I will ask them to kill the enemy for their motherland," he said.
"I promise you I will build a powerful and well-armed military machine in which people’s sons will be proud to serve in," he said. He vowed that the sons of the country’s elite would not be able to avoid conscription.
Draft dodging and bribing one’s way out of service was common during the war and is still widespread.
Mamedov will be trying to force a second round against Aliyev by preventing him from getting the needed two-thirds of the votes he is seeking to avoid a runoff. He has warned of possible attempts to steal the election through fraud.
Five top opposition candidates are boycotting the poll due to what they call unfair election laws sponsored by Aliyev.
Political observers say Aliyev should prevail and on Wednesday he said he was sure of victory in the first round.
Aliyev–revered by many Azeris as a larger-than-life "nation builder," has been on a barnstorming tour over the past two weeks–crisscrossing the former Soviet republic and emphasizing his accomplishment of bringing the once-chaotic land stability.
The volume on his personality cult has been turned up as the attacks on him from challengers have reached new highs.
In typical fawning fashion–one well-wisher recited a poem to a beaming Aliyev during a campaign trip to the town of Lenkoran–near the Iranian border–this week.
"You–grandfather–are the medicine for all our ills. You are the answer to all our problems," read the poem.