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Azerbaijan: Fragmented Opposition Ponders Options

(RFE/RL) Over the past 12 years, Azerbaijan's various fractious opposition parties have failed time and again to join forces to pose a strong, united, and cohesive alternative to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party.

December 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Partly as a result of individual opposition party leaders' reluctance to subordinate their personal ambitions to the greater opposition cause, but also partly due to ballot stuffing and other blatant procedural violations, the opposition suffered three successive crushing defeats in the parliamentary elections of 1995, 2000, and 2005.

History Of Failure

In 2000, official returns gave opposition candidates only 15 of the 125 parliament mandates, and in 2005, 21. By contrast, the unofficial Center for Election Monitoring reportedly calculated on the basis of its own data that the opposition Azadliq bloc alone won 40 seats.

In the wake of the disputed 2005 ballot, some opposition deputies demonstratively refused to take up their mandates in protest at perceived massive falsification. Several other nominally opposition deputies who do participate in the work of the legislature are widely regarded as in cahoots with the authorities.

Nor have opposition candidates fared any better in successive presidential ballots. Several opposition leaders boycotted the 1998 presidential election, in which official returns gave incumbent President Heydar Aliyev 76.11 percent of the vote compared to 11.6 percent for his closest challenger, Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Etibar Mammadov.

Failing health prevented Aliyev from running for a third term, but his son Ilham won the October 2003 presidential ballot, again with 76 percent of the vote. Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar finished a distant second with 13.97 percent, followed by independent candidate Lale Sovket-Haciyeva (3.62 percent), and AMIP's Mammadov (2.92 percent). Four other candidates polled 1 percent or less.

As with previous ballots, international observers dubbed the vote as failing to meet international standards for free and fair elections. Police in Baku used violence against Musavat supporters who gathered to protest Qambar's apparent defeat, claiming that he was, in fact, the victor.

The New Contenders

Following the 2003 presidential election, observers in Baku predicted the emergence of a new political force that they anticipated would replace an "old" opposition widely perceived to be a spent force.

One of the opposition figures touted as a possible rallying figure -- former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov -- aligned in 2005 with other opposition leaders of disparate political views, including Mammadov and exiled former President Ayaz Mutallibov, to form the Yeni Siyaset (New Politics, aka YeS) bloc. However, YeS won only two parliament mandates in the November parliamentary election, and suspended its activities in the summer of 2006.

A second election bloc, Azadliq, which united the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), and the Musavat party, effectively collapsed in February 2006, when Musavat defied its partners' proclaimed boycott and decided to participate in the work of the new legislature.

Confident In Victory

The collapse of Azadliq and subsequent acrimonious infighting within both Musavat and the Democratic Party was met with undisguised schadenfreude on the part of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). Senior members of that party have dwelt at length in interviews in recent months on what they consider the opposition's weaknesses and failures.

For example, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli said in a November 17 interview with the website that the opposition is incapable of putting forward any convincing and palatable alternative to the policies currently being implemented by the Azerbaijani leadership, and is therefore losing popular support.

He accused unnamed opposition politicians of resorting to "populist slogans and baseless slander" in a fruitless attempt to blacken the authorities and in a competition among themselves to be acknowledged as "the most radical opposition party." But even though a political opposition is a "normal attribute" of a democratic society, Gurbanli continued, "we shall not create an opposition artificially."

Opposition politicians were dismayed and embittered by the international community's lukewarm condemnation of the rigging of the 2005 parliamentary ballot. (The OSCE Monitoring Mission noted that election officials blatantly juggled figures in favor of YAP in 43 percent of precincts where their monitors were present for the vote count.)

That Western failure to express support for the Azerbaijani opposition was all the more painful when contrasted with the West's enthusiastic support of the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. Democratic Party First Deputy Secretary Sardar Calaloglu, for example, accused the West of "betraying democracy" in Azerbaijan.

Compounded Fracture

That collective sense of impotence and frustration among opposition party leaders was compounded by restrictions throughout the year on the holding of opposition rallies, and most recently by the eviction on November 24, 2006, of the AHCP progressive wing and the editorial staff of the newspaper "Azadliq" (which began publication 17 years as the AHCP organ) from the premises in central Baku that they had occupied for the past decade.

The following day, AHCP progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli and Liberal Party leader Haciyeva proposed drawing international attention to the absence of normal conditions for the functioning of either opposition parties or opposition media by suspending indefinitely the activities of both, reported on December 5. Democratic Party First Deputy Chairman Calaloglu expressed support for that proposal, but Musavat and AMIP reportedly rejected it.

Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), director of the news agency Turan that was evicted from the same building that housed "Azadliq" and the AHCP, argued that despite the constraints on opposition activity, the opposition should not adopt the "emotional decision" to suspend its activities.

Both Aliyev and Musavat argued that the opposition should instead align in a broad-based "resistance movement" that would coordinate its activities more closely, and reported on November 27 and 28, respectively. But opposition parliament deputy Panah Huseynov was quoted on December 5 by the daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" as saying mutual distrust, insincerity, and fundamental disagreements continue to preclude closer cooperation between the various opposition forces.

A National Forum

In early December, Jalaloglu addressed an open letter to President Aliyev, again raising the possibility, which the opposition had floated earlier, of establishing a National Forum in which political parties, NGOs, the media, trade unions, and possibly also leading government figures would participate.

Azerbaijani media construed that proposal as a direct call for dialogue between the opposition and the ruling authorities. So too did the president, who responded on December 7 that "I have said many times that we are ready for political dialogue," which would serve the country's interests.

At the same time, Aliyev slammed the opposition for acting in what he termed a "destructive" and "uncivilized" fashion and for resorting to "threats, illegal actions and attempts to destabilize the situation," reported on December 8.

Calaloglu then explained to journalists on December 12 that his proposal was to convene a forum that would be capable of proposing solutions to unspecified "national problems." At the same time, he stressed that the opposition is not against dialogue with the authorities and is ready to participate in such an exchange at any time. Calaloglu went on to identify as the main obstacle to such a dialogue unnamed pro-Russian politicians in both the opposition and the government camps who, he claimed, wish not merely to prevent a rapprochement between the two sides, but to provoke a major political and economic crisis.

Whether Calaloglu seriously believed the authorities would agree to his proposal -- or whether he counted on a refusal that the opposition could subsequently adduce to substantiate their argument that the leadership has no interest in promoting democratization -- is unclear.

Previous initiatives, such as the OSCE-mediated roundtable discussions between YAP and several opposition parties in the early summer of 2005, collapsed due to bickering over what issues should be addressed and Azadliq's failure to send representatives.

Azerbaijan In Focus

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