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Azerbaijan: Demoralized Opposition In Disarray

(RFE/RL) Two months after the 6 November parliamentary elections in which, according to official returns, Azerbaijan's opposition won a mere 10 of the 125 mandates, the cohesion of the opposition Azadliq election alliance is threatened by disagreements over future strategy, while two major opposition parties are riven by internal dissent. Whether those disagreements will result in total fragmentation, or whether former rivals might join forces in a new opposition alliance, is as yet unclear.

The disagreements among Azadliq's three members -- the Musavat party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), and the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) -- focus on whether the handful of opposition candidates who won their respective races should participate in the workings of a parliament the opposition considers lacking legitimacy; whether they should field candidates in the 13 May voting in the 10 constituencies in which the results of the 6 November ballot were annulled; and whether the opposition should propose candidates to serve on the new Central Election Commission (MSK).

On 1 December, Azerbaijan's Constitutional Court formally endorsed the results of the 6 November election from 115 of the total 125 constituencies, having annulled the results in a further six constituencies, in addition to the four where the MSK had already invalidated the outcome. The Constitutional Court's ruling deprived Ali Kerimli, chairman of the AHCP's progressive wing, of his mandate, leaving the AHCP with one deputy and Musavat with five (not including its chairman Isa Qambar); the DPA failed to win representation. Kerimli told journalists on 2 December that he intended to propose at his next meeting with fellow Azadliq party leaders and the leader of the National Unity Movement that the four organizations refrain from either participating in the work of the new legislature or from fielding candidates in the repeat elections, reported on 3 December.

The DPA initially endorsed that tactic, and National Unity's chair Lala-Shovket Gadjieva subsequently announced that she would not take up her mandate. But although Musavat party leader Qambar similarly pledged that neither Azadliq as a bloc nor Musavat would participate in the working of the new parliament, he subsequently retreated from that position, telling a 17 December meeting of Musavat's Mejlis (council) that while the Azadliq participation in the new parliament "will not change anything," the bloc would gain nothing from a boycott. (It should be borne in mind that Musavat was excluded from the 1995 parliamentary election and ended up with just one parliament deputy in the 2000 ballot.)

Musavat Deputy Chairman Rauf Arifoglu told journalists on 7 December that he has the legal right to participate in the repeat vote in the constituency for which he sought representation in the 6 November ballot. He added that he hopes opposition candidates will do likewise in the nine other constituencies where the results have been annulled. Arifoglu dismissed warnings from other Musavat party members that he risked expulsion if he failed to abide by the bloc's decision to boycott both the work of the new parliament and the repeat elections.

Some senior Musavat members present at the 17 December meeting advocated participating in the work of the new parliament, while others supported the proposed boycott. The meeting finally endorsed a decision by the party's top leaders not to participate in the work of the parliament for the time being, and to postpone a decision on whether or not to field candidates in the 13 May repeat voting until after a party congress scheduled for February 2006, according to on 20 December.

New National Movement?

Moreover, Musavat First Deputy Chairman Vurgun Eyyub and Deputy Chairman Sulheddin Akper both openly questioned the expediency not only of either prolonging the existence of Azadliq, which was conceived purely as an election bloc, or of transforming it into a new "national movement," but also of continuing to cooperate with the AHCP. Akper accused Kerimli of making an "unforgivable mistake" and of "dealing a major blow" to the opposition as a whole by his apparently spontaneous decision to launch a sit-down protest following the two-hour march and demonstration organized by Azadliq on 26 November to protest the election outcome, reported on 19 December. Kerimli's decision -- in which he was backed by Gadjieva -- triggered a vicious police assault on the dispersing demonstration participants in which dozens of people were injured. Akper proposed instead that Musavat should establish closer ties with the DPA, the conservative wing of the AHCP, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), and the tiny Vahdat party, according to on 20 December.

At a meeting of its top leadership on 24 December, Kerimli's wing of the AHCP reaffirmed its decision to boycott both the work of the new parliament and the 13 May repeat elections, reported on 27 December. Nizami Quliyev, who represented the party in the outgoing parliament, argued that the opposition has a duty to boycott the new parliament as a way to focus the attention of the international community on that body's shortcomings. But on 27 December quoted Quliyev as saying that in the issue of whether or not to participate in the repeat vote, including in the Gyadabey constituency where according to the official (later invalidated) returns he lost to a candidate from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), he will be guided by the final decision of the Azadliq bloc as a whole, rather than of that of the AHCP.

Like Musavat, the DPA too has retreated from its initial declaration of support for a boycott of parliamentary proceedings: DPA press spokesman Nureddin Ismailov told on 27 December that since no DPA candidates won election, it would not be ethical for the party to pronounce on the issue.

New Parliament

The newly elected parliament convened for the first time on 2 December and elected a new speaker and deputy speakers. Six representatives of five different opposition parties (including Azadliq's Djamil Gasanli) are participating in its work. Parliament statutes set the minimum number of deputies needed to establish a formal faction at 25; they must, moreover, all be elected from the same political party or bloc. Only such factions have the right of legislative initiative. Umid party chairman Iqbal Agazade, one of the six opposition deputies, was quoted in a 29 December interview with as saying that the "group of six" will endeavor to coordinate its activities.

Whether that will prove possible remains unclear, however: on 10 January reported that the minority parties represented in parliament (Civic Solidarity; Civic Unity; Great Creation; Democratic Reforms; Musavat; Ana Veten; Social Welfare; National Unity; Yeni Siyaset, or New Policy; both wings of the AHCP; Umid; and the breakaway United Party of the Azerbaijan Popular Front) have been unable to reach agreement on nominating six candidates to the new MSK. That body comprises 18 members, six each nominated by the majority party (YAP), by other parliamentary parties, and by nonaligned deputies.

Following a 6 January meeting of the heads of the three Azadliq constituent parties and National Unity, Kerimli told journalists the following day that while the AHCP progressive wing refuses to participate in the work of the MSK unless its composition is amended to give the ruling party and opposition parties equal representation, he cannot speak for the other parties, reported. But newly elected deputy parliament speaker Ziyafet Asqerov was quoted by on 30 December as ruling out any such major restructuring of the MSK. Earlier, Asqerov warned that deputies who fail to attend more than 30 parliament sessions without a valid excuse will be stripped of their mandate.

Speaking to journalists after the same 6 January meeting of Azadliq's leaders, Kerimli sought to play down the tactical differences between them, denying rumors of a split, reported on 7 January. He said the three discussed the bloc's future program, and that he unveiled a draft proposal on continued cooperation between Azadliq, National Unity, the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP). AMIP Chairman Ali Aliyev raised in December the possibility of AMIP quitting the Yeni Siyaset (YeS) election bloc and aligning with Azadliq. But that stated intention by Aliyev, who was elected AMIP chairman in two successive ballots last year, precipitated a major standoff between Aliyev and his predecessor Etibar Mammadov, who now holds the honorary title of AMIP "leader."

Mammadov has always regarded the leaders of Azadliq's three parties with a degree of coolness, if not outright hostility, according to on 16 December. Aliyev's increasingly intemperate and insulting criticisms of Mammadov and his supporters within the party culminated in its split into two rival groupings on 8 January.

Similarly rent by internal dissent is the DPA, whose First Deputy Chairman Serdar Djalaloglu is engaged in a power struggle with Aydin Quliyev, chief editor of the newspaper "Baky khabar," in which both men claim the backing of the party's exiled chairman, Rasul Quliyev.

Rasul Quliyev left Azerbaijan nine years ago after a major disagreement with then-President Heydar Aliyev, and headed the DPA from his U.S. exile since that time. He has announced several times his intention to return to Baku despite the fact that a warrant has been issued for his arrest on charges on large-scale embezzlement. In the wake of his most recent, abortive attempt to return, in mid-October, the Azerbaijani authorities arrested up to a dozen senior officials on charges of conspiring with Quliyev to stage a coup d'etat. Some Azerbaijani analysts have suggested that Rasul Quliyev's repeated failures to make good on his announced intention to return to Baku have discredited him to the point that the DPA would be unwise to risk proposing him as its candidate in the 2008 presidential election, according to on 21 December.

On 20 December, published an article entitled "Musavat and Azadliq Divorce," accompanied by a photo of Qambar and Kerimli side by side but visibly estranged. The paper suggested that in the event that Azadliq does collapse, Kerimli stands to "inherit" the more radical "protest" voters, while Qambar and Rasul Quliyev might remain aligned in a "rump" Azadliq. (An alliance between Kerimli, one of Azerbaijan's most charismatic politicians, and National Unity's Lale Sovket Hacjiyeva, one of the opposition's most politically sophisticated thinkers, could prove a force to be reckoned with.) At this juncture, however, any such speculation about putative realignments within the opposition camp remains premature.

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