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Azerbaijan: A Challenged Opposition

Unseating President Aliyev won't be easy (AFP) Ignored and marginalized for the last 10 years, Azerbaijan's political opposition has regained a modicum of respectability in the run-up to the 6 November parliamentary elections.

Its cause has been helped by a U.S. administration willing to give more attention to advancing democracy in the former Soviet Union. Isa Qambar, the leader of the Musavat party, and Ali Kerimli, leader of the reformist wing of the Popular Front, have twice been to Washington this year, while Lala Sovket Haciyeva of the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan has been once.

The visits are signals to the Azerbaijani government that the United States takes the opposition seriously -- and an encouragement to the opposition leaders to engage in the political process rather than throw stones at it from outside.

Divided History

The opposition has helped its own cause by putting aside -- for the moment at least -- some of the fractious disputes that have divided it in the past. The Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Musavat, and Democratic Party of Azerbaijan have come together in a solid coalition bloc, Azadliq, which poses a credible challenge to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). Azadliq is calling for a complete change of government.

The New Politics bloc (YeS) of Sovket Haciyeva, Eldar Namazov, and Etibar Mammadov are others that have a good chance of winning seats. Unlike many of its rivals, YeS has a clear platform of reform outlined in its platform document: "From Authoritarianism to Democracy, From Corruption to a Legal State," but is short of candidates with a strong enough profile to mount a real challenge.

The once powerful communist party, which won just two seats in the 2000 elections, is no longer a force.

And conspicuously absent is any sort of religious party. Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country and the strength of religion has undoubtedly grown in the 14 years since independence. But Article 14 of the electoral code states that no one who has a religious role in society can stand as a candidate. The Azerbaijan Islamic Party, which was banned in 1995, was the last religious party to stand in an Azerbaijani election.

There are other reasons, too, why the opposition can be expected to do better in this election.

* The "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have had an important psychological affect -- nowhere in the former Soviet Union does the power of the state seem quite so immutable as it once did. That may encourage voters to take a chance with the opposition.

* The governing party is tarred by the brush of power. It is seen as corrupt, inefficient, and indifferent to the needs of ordinary people. Nothing it has done in the last 10 years can have convinced voters otherwise. Despite swelling revenues from oil sales, the living standards of most people in Azerbaijan have not significantly improved. The International Monetary Fund has said that almost 50 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

* Eleven years have passed since the cease-fire that brought an end to the hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the government is no nearer to gaining back the lost territories (16 percent of Azerbaijan's land mass). More than half a million refugees are still waiting to return, many of them living in abject poverty.

Tall Order

In normal conditions, a government with a record like that would not expect to retain its majority. But few doubt that YAP will triumph again at the polls on 6 November.

The odds are stacked in its favor. The OSCE has criticized the excessive violence of the police in breaking up recent political rallies in the capital, Baku. But the opposition has faced its greatest problems in the regions, away from the spotlight of international attention. President Aliyev has ordered regional governors to assume a neutral role in the elections, but opposition candidates complain that pro-opposition journalists and activists putting up election stickers are regularly beaten, that permission is rarely granted to hold rallies, and that candidates are routinely harassed.

Despite an improvement on the past, the ruling party dominates access to state and public television, which are by far the media outlets with the greatest access to Azerbaijani households.

Nevertheless, even allowing for election fraud,this election should be a real competition. Over 2,000 candidates are contesting the 125 seats -- all of them in single-mandate contests. Azerbaijan abandoned proportional representation in 2002.

YAP's biggest strength, apart from the massive advantage of incumbency, is the promise of oil wealth just around the corner. Azerbaijan's economy is beginning to accelerate very quickly and will continue to do so for many years to come.

GDP increased by more than 10 percent last year and President Aliyev is talking of developing a state oil fund that could eventually top $30 billion, a huge sum in a country as small as Azerbaijan with a population of only around 8 million. The idea is that the fund should be used for education, poverty reduction, and infrastructure projects.

YAP's message is: don't rock the boat and your life will be transformed. In a clan-based society like Azerbaijan's, where people in the rural areas tend to vote the way they're told, that is a compelling argument.

Azerbaijan In Focus