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Analysis: President Aliyev's Options For Reform

Observers in Baku are unanimous in their conviction that rivalries within the Azerbaijani leadership are becoming more acrimonious and more visible. What remains unclear is whether and how President Ilham Aliyev is planning to take advantage of that infighting to strengthen his own position. One of the warring camps is, moreover, already seeking to portray itself as the pro-democracy faction and thus as Aliyev's natural partner in his professed campaign to secure for Azerbaijan membership of NATO and the EU.

Both the government and the parliament that President Aliyev "inherited" from his father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev include individuals known to be either incompetent, corrupt, or both. Aliyev's problem is that some of those compromised individuals might be personally more loyal to him than others whose reputation is less checkered. The Azerbaijani Constitution (Article 109) empowers the president to appoint and dismiss the government, and despite Aliyev's assurances in January that he considers most ministers "good and qualified professionals" and does not plan any sweeping personnel changes, rumors are now circulating in Baku that he will do so very shortly.

In two articles published last week in the online daily, political analyst Rauf Mirkadyrov claimed that Aliyev does indeed plan a fundamental renewal of the government and the legislature. On 10 June, Mirkadyrov predicted that Aliyev will begin by sacking the entire government, a move that would rid him of "the most odious and influential figures who are an irritant not only to the greater part of the population but also to international organizations." (Mirkadyrov does not identify the individuals in question.) Then, Mirkadyrov wrote, again in a gesture to the international community, Aliyev will complete the process of structural reform of the government launched by his predecessor, streamlining the number of ministries, and then set about redistributing power among the president, government, and parliament.

Sacking the entire cabinet and then reappointing its most competent and energetic members to oversee mega-ministries would not only preclude claims of victimization from those deprived of their posts. Getting rid of "dead wood" and targeting corruption within the government bureaucracy could improve efficiency and expedite the promised improvement in living standards that was one of the main pillars of Aliyev's election campaign.

By contrast, even though Aliyev is constitutionally empowered to call preterm parliamentary elections, there are reportedly cogent arguments against doing so immediately. According to Mirkadyrov, Aliyev regards the constitutional amendment approved in 2002 under which all 125 parliament mandates are in future allocated in single-mandate constituencies a major mistake. Aliyev reportedly wants to increase the number of mandates to 200, of which 150 would be allocated under the party-list system and the remaining 50 in single-mandate constituencies. This innovation would not only meet with the approval of international human rights organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe; it would be a gift to the hard-pressed Azerbaijani opposition, which is represented in the present parliament by only a handful of deputies. In addition, the reduction in the number of single-mandate constituencies and the concomitant increase in their geographical size would minimize the possibility of what Mirkadyrov referred to as "local mafiosi" literally buying their way into parliament.

Changing the composition of parliament by reintroducing the party-list vote would, however, require a referendum on changing the relevant articles of the constitution. The next parliamentary elections are due in the late fall of 2005, and, according to Mirkadyrov, Aliyev would like to schedule a referendum on the required constitutional amendments concurrently with the municipal elections due in the fall of 2004.

Sensing that it is at this juncture less vulnerable than the government, the Milli Mejlis has begun criticizing the executive branch for its imputed inability to deliver on the president's promises of accelerated economic development and more jobs, Mirkadyrov noted on 10 June. In a long interview published on on 12 June, Govhar Bakhshalieva, who is a parliament deputy chairwoman and a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), remarked that "it would not be true to say that I am 100 percent satisfied with the cabinet." She added that the parliament receives "masses of letters" from citizens who express their "extreme dissatisfaction" with unnamed ministers, and she stressed that such "odious characters" should be replaced.

Bakhshalieva was clearly less than enthusiastic at the prospect of reintroducing the allocation of parliament mandates under the party-list system. But at the same time, she wholeheartedly endorsed the argument, made at considerable length by presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev in an article published in "Bakinskii rabochii" last month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 28 May 2004), that a generational change in both the government and the legislature is long overdue in order to bring into both bodies people with a new approach to social, political, and legal issues -- people "with a European-type education and who are capable of radical reform directed at the swift modernization of the country."

Asked if she intends to run in the 2005 parliament elections, Bakhshalieva equivocated, saying she will decide closer to the election date. Mirkadyrov's analysis suggests an embryonic alliance between the president and the reformist camp, of which Mekhtiev seems to have cast himself as the ideologist. In the event that the putative Aliyev/Mekhtiev alliance eventually prevails over its opponents under the banner of reform, Bakhshalieva would be well placed to succeed current parliamentary chairman Murtuz Alesqerov, a promotion predicted by the opposition daily "Azadlig" on 8 January. But Mekhtiev himself has come under attack from YAP. An article published in the party's eponymous newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" on 15 June not only questions his competence in philosophy but also accuses him of seeking to minimize the role of the late president in building Azerbaijani statehood.

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