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Azerbaijan: Opposition Begins Early Election Campaign

In recent weeks, a number of anti-government coalitions have emerged in Azerbaijan with the aim of winning parliamentary seats in elections in November. The opposition in the past has often failed to join forces in time to make a political impact. But leaders of these groups say they have learned from past mistakes and are determined to work together in order to bring democratic change to the country. RFE/RL talked to the leaders of two of the new alliances -- former presidential aide Eldar Namazov and Popular Front Chairman Ali Kerimli.

Prague, 19 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Several opposition leaders and former government officials announced on 12 April the creation of a new election bloc to run for seats in Azerbaijan's Milli Meclis, or national parliament.

The alliance is known as Yeni Siyaset (New Politics). It includes Namazov, the chairman of Azerbaijan's Public Forum nongovernmental organization, and a onetime aide of late President Heidar Aliyev.

Other members are Lale Sovket, the former chairwoman of Azerbaijan's Liberal Party and a former secretary of state; and Etibar Mammedov, the former chairman of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP).

Namazov said the ultimate aim of the Yeni Siyaset alliance is to put an end to "a regime based on clan logic and corruption."

He told RFE/RL the bloc's goals are detailed in a seven-point program for leading the country in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Yeni Siyaset "will fight for free elections -- be they presidential, legislative, or municipal -- and in-depth democratic reforms. In other words, this bloc has not just been created in anticipation of the upcoming [parliamentary] polls. We have broader strategic aims. We want authoritarianism and Azerbaijan's corrupt politics to give way to a new, democratic system," Namazov said.

Although not widely known in the West, Namazov has long been active in Azerbaijani politics. From 1993 to 1999, he served as head of Heidar Aliyev's secretariat. He then entered parliament in 2000, but was barred from running in the controversial presidential poll in 2003.
"For us these elections are not mere elections. They are a way to achieve freedom of choice." - Kerimli

That vote saw Aliyev's son, Ilham, win by a landslide and launch a crackdown on the opposition, whom he accused of stirring up political unrest.

Unlike Namazov, some founding members of Yeni Siyaset did run in the 2003 presidential polls. Sovket, running as an independent candidate, officially took 3.3 percent of the vote. Mammedov won 2.7 percent.

Both Sovket and Mammedov claimed the vote was fraudulent. But neither joined the street protests staged by the Musavat Party, whose chairman, Isa Qambar, had finished second in the presidential race.

The new alliances are a departure from past opposition partnerships. In the run-up to the 2003 elections, Mammedov, then head of AMIP, teamed up with Ali Kerimli, the chairman of the reformist wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party.

But Mammedov has since left the AMIP and joined Yeni Siyaset. For his part, Kerimli allied himself with Qambar's Musavat and the Democratic Party of exiled oppositionist Rasul Quliyev.

Kerimli told RFE/RL the Azerbaijani opposition has learned its lesson from the previous election campaign. This time, instead of waiting until late in the race to join ranks, he says they have decided to consolidate well in advance.

"For us these elections are not mere elections. They are a way to achieve freedom of choice," Kerimli said. "But we won't be able to reach this goal if we remain isolated. This is why it is indispensable for us to join forces. After analyzing the 2003 polls and their outcome, we came to the conclusion that we must put our forces and resources together and get prepared well in advance if we want to avert a new defeat. This is why we started our election campaign so early."

Kerimli said the crackdown that followed Ilham Aliyev's victory demoralized the opposition, which went on to boycott the 2004 municipal elections. But he said the tide has reversed and that "the opposition is now much stronger than ever."

Both Kerimli and Namazov said it is possible their alliances will back a single candidate in November. It remains unclear, however, whether the Azerbaijani opposition will be able to overcome its traditional divisions.

Already, a number of AMIP and Democratic Party figures have been lured into a third antigovernment coalition created in January. Known as Hemreylik ve Etimad (Solidarity and Trust), this alliance is chaired by Ilqar Qasimov, a former Russian Justice Ministry official and a reported co-author of the Russia-Belarus Union treaty.

Many in Baku suspect that despite its self-described opposition stance, this bloc may prove to be either a government puppet or a way for Russia to maintain influence in Azerbaijani politics.

By contrast, the blocs chaired by Namazov and Kerimli are widely perceived as being pro-Western, if only because their leaders are regularly invited to meet decision makers in the United States and Europe.

Namazov said the West has been closely following developments in Azerbaijan, but so far is wary of backing a single political group.

"We've been developing close ties with international structures and democratic countries, including the United States and European states," he said. "But our feeling is that they do not wish to lend support to any particular individual, or political party. What Europe and the United States support, first of all, is [Azerbaijan's] democratic process. They've stated that on more than one occasion, and I believe they are sincere."

Namazov and Kerimli both noted that the West is currently pressing the government to amend the existing election law and ensure that the upcoming vote is fair and democratic. They also say it was Western pressure that forced Ilham Aliyev to order the release of all opposition leaders sentenced last year for their participation in the November 2003 unrest.

Both leaders say they want use elections to achieve democratic changes. But they caution against a repeat of the recent political upheaval in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

"We want these elections to be democratic, honest, and fair," Kerimli said. "We're getting prepared for elections, not a revolution. We want [everything] to go peacefully, democratically, and legally. But should the government try to oppose this, should it attempt once again to falsify the election's outcome, we will not let ourselves be pushed around and there will be a popular resistance movement against frauds. If the government wants to avert this, it has only one option -- to ensure that the upcoming polls are free and fair."

Namazov said any perception of election fraud will inevitably lead to popular resistance. He ruled out, however, the possibility of violent protests such as the ones that followed the 2003 vote. "We believe society is mature enough to not let a few thousand individuals armed with truncheons and stones confront police forces," he said.

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