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Azerbaijan: Leading Opposition Party Breaks With Coalition Partners

Qambar (right) and Kerimli (left) in happier times (AFP) One of Azerbaijan's main opposition parties, Musavat, last week announced that it was withdrawing from the Azadliq election alliance amid disagreements with its coalition partners. Some political observers in Baku believe the decision is a stunning blow to an opposition already in disarray after its defeat in the disputed 6 November legislative polls. Others argue that the move may be part of a long-term electoral strategy. RFE/RL asked Musavat Chairman Isa Qambar why he decided to severe ties with his allies and also discussed Azadliq's future with its main leader, Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli.

PRAGUE, 13 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Musavat announced its defection in a short statement issued on 9 February.

Among the reasons the party cited in explaining its decision were disagreements it said surfaced three months ago between itself and its two coalition partners, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP) and the reformist wing of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (AXCP).

First Doubts

More specifically, Musavat referred to a dispute that broke out during a 26 November rally held on Baku's Qalaba Square to protest the outcome of the legislative polls held three weeks earlier.

As the rally was nearing its end, AXCP Chairman Ali Kerimli called upon supporters to stage a permanent protest and to not leave the square until election officials voided the vote. Minutes later, police violently dispersed the crowd, arresting scores of opposition activists.

Musavat Chairman Isa Qambar tells RFE/RL he attempted to dissuade Kerimli from calling for a sit-in protest for fears of police violence similar to that which took place following the 2003 presidential elections in which he was the leading opposition candidate.
Cracks first appeared during an opposition protest rally in November following the country's parliamentary elections

"We, (at Musavat), thought that neither society nor the opposition were ready for this type of [permanent] protest, that authorities would severely suppress it and then forbid us from holding any other mass protest action, which would restrict our opportunities for a democratic struggle," Qambar said. "But our allies were of a different opinion and thought a permanent protest would succeed. Unfortunately, our fears came true, and after 26 November we were no longer able to hold mass protest rallies against those fraudulent elections."

Disagreements over methods of protest were just the first cracks in the unity of the Azadliq election alliance. Subsequent disputes increased the dissention within the coalition and eventually led to its demise.

Mounting Issues

Following a 1 December Constitutional Court ruling that validated the outcome of the vote in all but 10 of Azerbaijan's 125 electoral constituencies, the opposition said it would boycott the legislature and not take the nine parliamentary seats it had officially won. It also announced that it would not participate in repeat elections in the 10 constituencies where the November vote was invalidated.

But Musavat's Higher Council on 5 February decided against boycotting the parliament and announced that it would take part in a repeat vote scheduled for 13 May.

In Baku on 26 November, people protested the results of the parliamentary elections (AFP)

Musavat's reversal came just days after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) had accepted the credentials of the new Azerbaijani delegation, thus effectively recognizing the outcome of the November polls. Both the Council of Europe and the United States had earlier urged the opposition to not shun the legislature and to participate in the repeat elections.

Qambar says that although his party does not recognize the legitimacy of the newly elected legislature, it now believes it should occupy the four seats it officially won.

"It is logic that dictated our decision," Qambar said. "Should we refuse to participate in the [May] re-vote, we'd better refuse to take part in all elections for many decades to come. The representatives of [President Ilham] Aliyev's regime will never democratize election laws or electoral practices on their own initiative. This is why we must fight. We will be able to change things only if we continue to fight. Being a parliament-oriented party, we wish to take part in upcoming polls. So we don't see any logic in refusing to take part in the [May] re-vote."

But for AXCP Chairman Kerimli, Musavat's decision is tantamount to surrendering to the authorities and recognizing the outcome of the November elections.

"We've said that we do not wish to participate in those [electoral] shows organized by the authorities," Kerimli said. "Instead of democratic polls, each time they organize electoral shows. We don't want to fulfill the role of opponents the authorities want us to play. We don't recognize the falsified results [of the November vote]. This is the main disagreement between our parties. Any other reason [Musavat may cite] is just an excuse."

The Last Straw

Musavat's Qambar claims a hostile media campaign orchestrated by both the ADP and the AXCP was the final straw.

"After we decided to take part in the work of the parliament and participate in the repeat elections, [ADP and AXCP] officials launched, with the help of media outlets close to them, a smear campaign against our party," Qambar said. "They accused us of abandoning our oppositionist views, of collaborating with Aliyev's regime, and so on and so forth. We asked them to put an end to this campaign. But they refused and, of course, that influenced our decision [to leave Azadliq]."

Following last week's announcement that Musavat was splitting with Azadliq, many opposition newspapers have renewed their attacks against Qambar.

On 11 February, the Russian-language "Zerkalo" daily wrote: "The Musavat leader has struck a significant blow, not only to the opposition as a whole, but also to himself. He has buried all the hopes of protest voters, as well as all hopes for the opposition to take revenge in [the] 2008 [presidential vote]."
Qambar says that although his party does not recognize the legitimacy of the newly elected legislature, it now believes it should occupy the three seats it officially won.

But not all commentators agree with this assessment.

Political expert and former Social-Democratic Party leader Zardust Alizade says he believes Qambar's decision is by no means suicidal.

"The elections are over. Whether the new parliament should be considered legitimate, whether it was elected through a fraudulent or fair vote are now questions for historians," Alizade said. "Both the PACE and the U.S. have recognized this parliament and one can say the legitimization of the parliament already took place. This is why I believe Musavat has made a pragmatic decision. They chose to be no longer obsessed by those elections and, instead, to look ahead toward the next presidential election. Qambar has decided to go his own way and use a parliamentary platform that could help him become, once again, the strongest [presidential opposition] candidate."

Talk Of New Alliance

In the meantime, Kerimli says he will look for new allies.

"We've decided to continue our political struggle with other parties and to create a fully-fledged political alliance, also called Azadliq," Kerimli said. "This alliance will continue to fight for democratic elections in Azerbaijan"

Kerimli said that besides his own party and the ADP the new alliance would include National Unity, the movement led by Liberal Party chairwoman Lale Sovket-Haciyeva, and Ali Aliyev's National Independence Party of Azerbaijan.

Qambar says he believes new forms of cooperation between his party and its former coalition partners will be possible after the dust settles. While saying he does not rule out collaboration on an ad hoc basis, Kerimli rules out any formal links among the former allies in the future.

"One thing is certain, as a political alliance we will continue without Musavat," Kerimli says.

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