In the run-up to the 1998 Azerbaijani presidential election, five of the country's most respected opposition leaders demonstrated their anger at the authorities' refusal to create equal conditions for all candidates by collectively refusing to compete. But in two subsequent national elections (parliamentary in 2000 and presidential in 2003), the opposition proved unable to align in a single bloc, or behind a single candidate. And observers are predicting that up to 20 candidates might register to contest each of the 125 seats in the new parliament to be elected on 6 November.
The formal process of registering parties and blocs, and the individual candidates they will field, is still under way and ends only on 7 September. But it already seems probable that the number of blocs and parties will exceed that registered in 2000, when then President Heidar Aliyev intervened just weeks before the ballot to overturn the initial refusal by the Central Election Commission (MSK) to register eight of the 13 parties that hoped to participate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 October 2000). To date, the MSK has registered five blocs, according to its website (http://www.cec.gov.az) and day.az on 28 July. They are the pro-government Islahat; the Azadlyg and Yeni Siyaset (aka YeS) opposition blocs; Democratic Azerbaijan; For the Sake of Azerbaijan; and the Alliance for the Flourishing of Azerbaijan, comprising the eponymous party and the Rebirth party. The MSK rejected on 24 July the initial registration application submitted by the bloc Pro-Azerbaijani Forces due to a minor infringement, echo-az.com reported on 26 July. Further opposition blocs seeking registration are Public Leaders; Alliance in the Name of Azerbaijan; Building a Civic Society; National Unity; and the Union for Democratic Reforms.
Demands for free and fair elections have figured prominently at all opposition demonstrations so far this summer and have largely overshadowed other issues such as approaches to democratization, economic and social policy, Azerbaijan's foreign policy orientation, and how to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
Several opposition parties and blocs have affirmed their hypothetical readiness to expand to include new members and/or have concluded agreements among themselves to coordinate the nomination of candidates to ensure they do not end up competing against each other in individual constituencies. For example, Liberal Party leader Avez Temirkhan dropped his plans to contest one Baku constituency in favor of Eldar Namazov of YeS, day.az reported on 27 July. But on the other hand, Azadlyg rejected the overtures of Umid party Chairman Igbal Agazade, for reasons that the latter declined to disclose, according to day.az on 8 July. Two former leading members of one party have registered from the same constituency: Etibar Mamedov, former chairman of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party and now a member of YeS, and his former Deputy Chairman Nazim Imanov will compete against each other in Baku's Yasamal Raion, day.az and echo-az.com reported on 11 and 13 July, respectively. And YeS plans to register former President Ayaz Mutalibov to contest Constituency No. 17 in Baku, where National Unity leader Lala-Shovket Gadjieva, who quit YeS due to a disagreement over election tactics, also plans to register, according to day.az on 23 July. (Those plans may fall flat, however, if the Azerbaijani authorities refuse to permit Mutalibov to return to Baku from his 13-year exile in Moscow.)
A further factor that militates against greater cooperation and coordination among opposition forces, according to Namazov, is widespread mutual suspicion. The Azerbaijani media have for months, if not years, engaged in unsubstantiated rumors and speculation about possible clandestine deals being cut between opposition forces and "oligarchs" from within the ruling elite. Such speculation means, Namazov told day.az on 28 June, that "there is no clear-cut mechanism for determining whether you are dealing with a real oppositionist or a politician who is playing at being part of the opposition."
The anticipated fierce competition between rival parties and blocs is all the more difficult to explain in light of the absence of any fundamental policy differences among the opposition parties. True, the opposition can be broadly divided, as the independent daily zerkalo.az noted on 28 June, into the "traditional" opposition parties (of which the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party [AHCP], Musavat, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party are the most prominent) and the new "liberal" parties and blocs, including YeS and the Party of Democratic Reforms recently founded by Assim Mollazade, a former leading AHCP member. Some observers consider the "traditional" opposition, especially the three parties aligned in Azadlyg, discredited as a result of the humiliating defeat of their candidate, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar, in the 2003 presidential ballot, and the "liberals" apparently hope to capitalize on that perception.
But even so, as in 2000 and 2003, the overriding issue is the demand by all opposition parties that this time around the ballot be free, fair, democratic, and transparent, and the authorities should not be permitted to retain power by resorting to what Gerard Stoudmann, then director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, referred to in the wake of the November 2000 parliamentary ballot as "a crash course in manipulation" of the outcome. Demands for free and fair elections have figured prominently at all opposition demonstrations so far this summer and have largely overshadowed other issues such as approaches to democratization, economic and social policy, Azerbaijan's foreign policy orientation, and how to resolve the Karabakh conflict. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky touched on that ideological vacuum during a speech in Baku on 27 July, stressing that "all political parties carry responsibility to participate fully in the election process through nonviolent campaigns that explain issue-specific messages and platforms to voters. The people of Azerbaijan must have real choices," Turan reported.Related Story:
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