Can the opposition unseat President Ilham Aliyev?
Having failed in his year-long campaign to induce fellow opposition party leaders to back a single candidate in the October 2003 Azerbaijani presidential election, in late December 2004 Ali Kerimli, 39, chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, launched a new appeal to those same colleagues to join forces to contest the parliamentary elections due in November 2005 as a single opposition bloc. Specifically, Kerimli hopes to forge a broad opposition coalition that will field one candidate only in each of Azerbaijan's 125 constituencies. But another joint body has already emerged with the proclaimed aim of promoting free elections and fielding candidates in every constituency. And the Azerbaijani authorities may be mulling a diabolical and ingenious move to split the opposition vote even further.
In two separate interviews published on 8 January in the Russian-language papers "Zerkalo" and "Ekho," Kerimli advocated the creation of a single election bloc that would unite "real political and social forces and nonpartisan members of the intelligentsia." He reasoned that none of the main opposition parties have the resources to campaign effectively for their candidates in all 125 constituencies. But, Kerimli continued, between them, the main opposition parties could easily compile a list of 60-70 well-known and respected political figures to contest individual constituencies. He argued that the 2003 presidential election demonstrated once and for all that only the unification of Azerbaijan's entire democratic potential can create a force capable of ousting the present leadership. And he affirmed that the opposition has evolved over the past decade and will not permit a repeat of the falsifications that marred the 2003 presidential ballot.
Kerimli also spoke of his efforts to push through sweeping amendments to the existing election law, and to reverse the outcome of the August 2002 referendum that endorsed sweeping constitutional amendments, including the abolition of the mixed majoritarian-proportional system in which 100 parliamentary deputies were elected from single-mandate constituencies and 25 from party lists. Kerimli said that all the country's 5,000 local election commissions are controlled by members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), who have little incentive to promote free and fair elections that could end that party's rule. He argued that YAP and the opposition should have equal representation on election commissions. As for the possibility of restoring the mixed majoritarian/proportional system of voting, Kerimli said that the proportional system exerts a beneficial effect on the development of political parties in those countries where the democratization process is only just gathering momentum and contributes to the emergence of "professional parliamentarians." At the same time, he admitted that, even though some members of the present leadership favor the reintroduction of the mixed proportional-majoritarian system, there may not be enough time to hold the required referendum on amending the constitution.
Kerimli did not say what level of support his new initiative met with. But within days, a group of 26 NGOs announced the creation of a bloc named Solidarity and Trust that likewise plans to field candidates in all 125 constituencies in the November elections, Turan and "Ekho" reported on 10 and 11 January respectively. The bloc includes Amal, a movement uniting the intelligentsia, together with the Alliance in the Name of Azerbaijan, the Agrydag union that represents the interests of Azerbaijanis whose families were expelled from the then Armenian SSR in the 1950s, and the NGO Caucasian Conference, together with individual members of both the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) and the opposition Musavat party. Amal members stressed that the new alliance is open to all and is ready to cooperate with "all democratic forces" to ensure that the November 2005 parliamentary elections are free and fair, and that the estimated 2.4 million Azerbaijanis currently working abroad are able to cast their ballots. But one of its leading members, Caucasian Conference board chairman Shakhriyar Rasulov, made clear his rejection of Kerimli's argument that the opposition should field no more than one candidate in each constituency.
One feature of Solidarity and Trust that is of particular interest is its choice of leader. At its 10 January session, retired army Colonel Ildyrym Aliev proposed the candidacy of Alliance in the Name of Azerbaijan leader and Russian Army General Ilgar Gasymov, arguing the importance of selecting a chairman who commands respect in both Azerbaijan and Russia. That rationale raises the question whether Solidarity and Trust is intended primarily as a pro-Russian opposition force, in contrast to the alignment which the unequivocally pro-Western Kerimli hopes to create. In other words, is Moscow, smarting from the defeat of its preferred presidential candidate in Ukraine, already plotting to forestall a possible "pomegranate revolution" in Azerbaijan by seeking to split the opposition vote with a view to possibly forming a parliamentary majority composed of YAP in tandem with Solidarity and Trust?
Also on 10 January, the Union of Workers of Azerbaijan issued an appeal to all Azerbaijani opposition parties to set aside their rivalries and covert overtures to the authorities and close ranks in Unified Opposition Movement, zerkalo.az reported on 11 January. The appeal accused the present leadership of being solely preoccupied with retaining power, rather than seeking solutions to the problems the country faces. It argued that those problems can be resolved only after a fair presidential election, not as a result of parliamentary elections.
But if the creation of Solidarity and Trust has strangled in embryo any hopes Kerimli nurtured of turning the November ballot into a straight contest between YAP and a united opposition, the Azerbaijani authorities may be mulling the possibility of splitting the opposition vote even further by allowing former President Ayaz Mutalibov to return to Baku from his 14-year exile in Moscow. On 6 January, "Zerkalo" quoted Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan co-Chairman Araz Alizade as claiming that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev takes a positive view of the prospect of Mutalibov's return. (In mid-2003, Mutalibov quit the Civic Solidarity Party of which he was chairman and joined the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan as its co-chairman.) Permitting Mutalibov to return to Baku would win badly needed kudos for a leadership that has repeatedly been accused of seeking to suppress the opposition; it would also, as noted above, serve to split the opposition vote even further.
In a 12 January interview with the online daily "Ekho," Mutalibov denied that talks are underway on his possible return to Azerbaijan. But at the same time he stressed that "today we are living in new political conditions," and that it would be advantageous to the Azerbaijani leadership to allow him to return. He noted that his lengthy enforced exile "does not enhance the authority of the country, or of society, or of democracy in Azerbaijan, about which so much has been spoken all these years."