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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan: Date For Presidential Ballot Confirmed

<div class="caption"><div class="watermark"> <a href="http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_mw800_mh600.gif" rel="ibox" title=" (RFE/RL)"> <img alt=" (RFE/RL)" src="http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_w203.gif" class="photo" border="0"></a></div><p> (RFE/RL)</p></div>May 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov announced on May 22 that the presidential election due next year will take place on the precise date stipulated by the constitution: the third day of the third week of October (October 15, 2008).

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By Liz Fuller

The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) is certain to nominate incumbent Ilham Aliyev for a second term. But it appears unlikely at this juncture that the fractured Azerbaijani opposition will close ranks and field a single candidate to challenge him.
 
The official results of the October 2003 presidential election gave Ilham Aliyev over 76 percent of the vote, thereby legalizing his succession to the post previously occupied by his father, Heydar Aliyev.
 
For months prior to that ballot, rival Azerbaijani opposition parties tried to reach agreement on nominating a single candidate to challenge the incumbent, but ultimately failed to do so.
 
Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar, who reportedly declined to withdraw his candidacy and ended up a distant second with just under 14 percent of the vote, subsequently claimed that the results were falsified and that he was the legal winner with some 60 percent of the vote. 
 
Election Violations


International observers conceded that the vote was not free and fair, but qualified their criticism with the caveat that the egregious procedural violations they witnessed were unlikely to have been the decisive factor in Ilham Aliyev's election.
 
Qambar was one of several prominent oppositionists who boycotted the 1998 presidential ballot, in which Heydar Aliyev garnered 76 percent of the vote and Etibar Mammadov of the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) 11.6 percent.
 
In the weeks and months following the 2003 elections, political observers debated at length whether veteran opposition leaders such as Qambar and Mammadov should be written off as a spent force in whom the electorate no longer has confidence, and if so, which opposition figures might emerge, either individually or aligned in a new movement, to take their place.


Given that lack of mutual trust, tactical differences, and the personal ambitions of individual party leaders, the chances of even a loose opposition alignment, let alone agreement on a single opposition candidate, look as bleak now as they did a decade ago.


Among those identified as possible leaders of a "new force" were Nazim Imanov, a longtime close associate of Mammadov who quit AMIP shortly after the election, and former presidential advisor Eldar Namazov.
 
Those two men were among several opposition political figures -- together with Mammadov and National Unity Movement leader Lale Sovket-Haciyeva -- who aligned in a bloc named Yeni Siyaset (New Thinking, aka YeS) to participate in the November 2005 parliamentary elections. Whether as a result of falsification or because its intellectually sophisticated program failed to appeal to rank and file voters, YeS won only two mandates in the 125-seat legislature which, as before, is dominated by YAP.
 
Despite successive election defeats and relentless harassment by the authorities, the Azerbaijani opposition remains divided, prey to mutual suspicion and enmity, and unable to agree on tactics.
 
Musavat, one of three parties that formed the Azadliq (Liberty) bloc to participate in the 2005 parliamentary election, left it in early 2006 after deciding its deputies would participate in the work of the new legislature, while its partners, the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) and Sovket-Haciyeva's National Unity Movement, decided to boycott the new legislature.
 
Two veteran opposition parties have likewise fallen victim to internal feuding that led to the split of AMIP split into two rival components in early 2006, and of the DPA in early 2007. That latter division left Sardar Calaloglu heading a party that still goes under the DPA name, while the erstwhile DPA leader, exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev, recently founded a new party named Open Society.
 
Cynics may argue that any such realignment of opposition forces is to all intents and purposes irrelevant in a quasi-authoritarian political system in which the opposition's parliamentary representation is minimal, and its freedom to communicate with voters, either by staging rallies or through the official media, is greatly curtailed.


Divide And Conquer


The Azerbaijani leadership nonetheless seeks relentlessly to capitalize on divisions within the opposition, adopting different approaches in its dealings with different parties and individual politicians.
 
Thus Musavat, whose deputies attend parliament sessions, has received permission to stage protests in Baku against the price hikes announced in January 2007 (albeit at venues selected by the city authorities, not of the party's choosing), while the AHCP, which continues to boycott parliament proceedings, is refused permission to convene analogous protests.
 
The tougher stance taken with regard to the AHCP could also signal a perception that Qambar is no longer regarded as a serious political figure, in contrast to AHCP leader Ali Kerimli, who for the past nine months has been refused permission to leave Azerbaijan and travel abroad.
 
Whether that differentiated approach is part of a broader and carefully crafted strategy is difficult to say; indeed, different factions within the Azerbaijani leadership may have widely diverging views on whether and how to neutralize or sideline the opposition in the run-up to next year's ballot. At present, however, the overall strategy appears to be one of granting opposition parties only the minimum freedom of maneuver commensurate with Azerbaijan's pledges to human rights organizations such as the Council of Europe, while ignoring any initiative originating with the opposition.
 
The most notable such initiative in recent months was a public proposal by DPA leader Calaloglu for a broad "dialogue" of all political forces. While President Aliyev responded by affirming that he supports any such dialogue, YAP, which holds all the aces, has not formally accepted the offer.
 
In light of those constraints on opposition activity, some opposition politicians have raised the possibility of boycotting the 2008 presidential ballot to highlight the lack of a "level playing field." Sovket-Haciyeva, for example, said in November 2006 she will not run as a candidate unless the political climate improves dramatically. But senior Musavat party member Arif Gacili on April 20 has ruled out a boycott, while Namazov told day.az on May 14 that only those political figures with little faith in their own popularity would even consider the idea.
 
In an April 28 article published the online daily echo-az.com, independent political analyst Zardusht Alizade predicted that at least seven or eight opposition candidates will run in the 2008 ballot, including Qambar, Mammadov, Classical Popular Front Party leader Mirmahmud Miralioglu, and Iqbal Agazade, who is the chairman and sole parliament deputy from the Umid (Hope) party.
 
'Absurd' Idea


Asked whether he thinks it possible that this time around, the opposition will join forces behind a single candidate, Agazade told day.az on April 10 that in light of opposition parties' chronic inability to close ranks, the very idea is "absurd."
 
Undaunted by past failures, some opposition parties nonetheless hope for closer cooperation in the run-up to the 2008 ballot. Following preliminary consultations over a period of at least several weeks, Namazov, Qamber, Akif Sahbazov of Open Society, a representative of Mammadov's AMIP, and Taraggi party leader Cingiz Damiroglu met recently to discuss the creation of a new opposition bloc, according to zerkalo.az on May 24.
 
That online daily quoted Namazov as explaining that the objective of the nascent and as yet unnamed alliance is "to create an atmosphere that will make it possible to hold free and democratic elections in 2008."
 
In an earlier interview with day.az (on May 14), Namazov had argued that the October 2008 presidential election "will be the most important election since Azerbaijan became independent, and the competition will be the most intense ever." At the same time, he affirmed that "if we set about organizing the right way, the opposition has a real chance of winning."
 
Asked whether the putative new alliance will field a single presidential candidate, Namazov pointed to the diverging approaches among opposition parties, noting that some advocate a boycott, others agreement on a single candidate, while a third school of thought proposes nominating several strong candidates with the aim of forcing a runoff. That latter approach, he said, would help to clarify which opposition party leader enjoys the greatest degree of support.
 
Azadliq Not Interested


From the outset, however, Azadliq has signaled that it is not interested in, and will not join, the proposed new bloc. Ali Aliyev, chairman of the Civic Development Party formed in early 2006 by defectors from AMIP, was quoted by day.az on May 23 as saying that Azadliq's members see no need to do so, although they do not rule out cooperation "between a large number of blocs."
 
Aliyev and Kerimli of the AHCP did nonetheless attend a brainstorming session on May 25 organized by Quliyev's Open Society party that focused on ways to ensure that the 2008 election is free and democratic. But here again, participants' views diverged: while Quliyev argued that the UN should be asked to organize and monitor the ballot, other speakers, including National Democratic Party (aka Boz Gurd, Gray Wolves) leader Iskander Hamidov warned against either appealing to or relying on international organizations for support.
 
Liberal Party of Azerbaijan head Avez Temirkhan for his part highlighted the persistent mutual suspicion between rival parties. Affirming his own party's support for a united opposition front, he admitted to being "tormented by doubts" about the sincerity of analogous statements by other party leaders.


Given that lack of mutual trust, tactical differences, and the personal ambitions of individual party leaders, the chances of even a loose opposition alignment, let alone agreement on a single opposition candidate, look as bleak now as they did a decade ago.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report
 

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