Ruling Party In Position Of Strength
The November 6 ballot, which international observers characterized as flawed by ballot stuffing, multiple voting, vote rigging, and other violations, gave the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) and independent candidates aligned with it an overwhelming majority in the new legislature.
Opposition parties and electoral blocs won only a handful of seats. Some opposition deputies declined to take up their parliament mandates as a way of protesting what they termed a rigged election, and some opposition parties, including the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) progressive wing, declared a boycott of the repeat vote.
Others, including the Musavat party, nonetheless decided to participate in the new legislature. Disagreement over whether or not to participate in the new parliament and the repeat ballot led to the split in February of the Azadliq election bloc that previously united two of the country's oldest and most influential opposition parties, Musavat and the AHCP.
A total of 154 candidates originally registered for the May 13 repeat vote, of whom 29 subsequently withdrew. Of the remaining 125 candidates, 60 are nominally independent (although some of those are YAP members), and a further 18 declined to state their party affiliation, according to echo-az.com on May 9. Musavat is fielding 10 candidates, YAP nine, and the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), five; other opposition parties, including the Communists, have between one and five candidates. The number of names on the ballot paper in individual constituencies ranges from seven to 19, day.az reported on April 24.
Rerun Of Last Flawed Vote?
Presidential-administration official Ali Hasanov pledged on May 2 that the Azerbaijani authorities will do all in their power to ensure that the ballot is "democratic, transparent, and fair," according to the online daily echo-az.com on May 3. And Central Election Commission head Mazahir Panahov warned local election officials on April 25 that they risk arrest and prosecution for any failure to comply strictly with election procedure, including the requirement first introduced last November to mark voters' fingers with indelible ink to prevent them voting more than once.
But opposition candidates have been complaining for weeks that local election and government officials are engaging in the same illegal and repressive measures that marred previous parliamentary elections.
Musavat party Deputy Chairman Arif Hacili was quoted on April 26 by echo-az.com as complaining that the local authorities in Zakatala, where he is registered as a candidate, are now "openly" interfering in the election campaign, whereas in the run-up to the November 6 vote they were more circumspect about doing so. In at least two constituencies -- Jalalabad and Sumgait -- opposition candidates have appealed to President Ilham Aliyev to intervene and create fair conditions for all candidates, according to echo-az.com on May 5 and zerkalo.az on May 11.
Anticipating foul play, thousands of Azerbaijanis have registered as observers, and NGOs will conduct exit polls. But few experts hold out much hope for a really clean ballot, and even if opposition candidates, rather than nominal independents who are YAP members, win all 10 seats, the opposition will still constitute only a tiny minority within parliament.
Perhaps a more serious threat to the democratic process are the feuds that have split one opposition party (AMIP) in the wake of the November election and which pose a threat to two other parties, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and Musavat. Musavat is scheduled to hold a congress in the near future at which according to the party's statutes, Isa Qambar, who has served as its leader for over a decade, should resign and make way for a new chairman.
Qambar, however, was quoted by day.az on April 28 as saying he intends to seek a third consecutive term as party leader. Qambar refused to acknowledge his apparent crushing defeat by then-acting President Aliyev in the October 2003 presidential election, claiming that the election returns were falsified and that he was the true winner with 60 percent of the vote.
Official returns gave Aliyev some 80 percent of the vote and Qambar 12.8 percent, while exit polls of 2,414 voters at 200 polling stations throughout Azerbaijan conducted by the independent ADAM Center and Turan gave Qambar 46.2 percent of the vote, followed by Aliyev with 24.1 percent.
In the wake of the November 2003 election, Azerbaijani commentators argued at length that the older generation of opposition leaders, including Qambar, were a "spent force," and they predicted that new leaders and alignments would emerge in the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections. But the one new alignment that did emerge, Yeni Siyaset (New Policy, YeS) which grouped together influential figures, garnered only a handful of parliament mandates, and its future remains unclear.
In an interview published on April 27 in echo-az.com, commentator Ilqar Mamedov affirmed "the so-called old opposition is totally demolished and has exhausted all its moral, physical, human, and ideological reserves." And he described the leaders of those established opposition parties as having failed to work on presenting a "modern" image. But such criticism is unlikely to impel either Qambar, or his younger former ally, Ali Kerimli of the AHCP, to retire from active politics, especially given the absence of popular and charismatic rivals.