Azerbaijani Opposition Faces Important Tactical Choices
By Rovshan Ismayilov: 11/01/05

Azerbaijan’s broad opposition movement is facing important tactical choices in the coming days, as it strives to reverse the results of what it maintains was a widely rigged parliamentary elections. Subtle divisions are emerging within the movement, with opposition leaders preferring moderate tactics while some rank-and-file activists are arguing for non-stop protest rallies.

According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), opposition representatives have won 11 seats in parliament to date – seven for the Azadlig (Freedom) bloc seats (including four for the Musavat Party and three for the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan), one for the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan and two for the Yeni Sisayet (YeS – New Policy) bloc.

The opposition, however, claims that it actually won 75 constituencies in the November 6 parliamentary election and has called for fresh voting in all 125 constituencies. Failing fresh elections – an unlikely scenario observers say -- opposition leaders from Azadlig (uniting Musavat, the Popular Front Party and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan), the Liberal Party and YeS say that their parties will boycott parliament if the CEC does not recognize opposition candidates as the victors in at least 40 election districts.

The trick, for the opposition, lies in making that scenario happen.

Mass rallies so far have taken place only in the capital city, Baku. The most recent protest on November 13 attracted around 20,000 participants, according to some independent estimates.

The days of unauthorized rallies in Baku also appear to be over. After failing to secure city permission for a third rally on November 18, Democratic Party of Azerbaijan First Deputy Chairman Sardar Jalaloglu told the APA news agency on November 15, the opposition has decided to hold its next protests on November 19 and November 20. A decision from the city government about the November 19 protest is still pending.

Meanwhile, grassroots and youth activists have demanded that non-stop demonstrations be held in Baku’s Galaba Square, the site of two protest rallies sanctioned by the city government since the November 6 elections. The idea has been categorically rejected by opposition leaders, who, said Azadlig campaign manager Panah Huseyn, want “a struggle within the law.” Huseyn rejected as rumors statements that orange tents have been procured for such a purpose. “The Azadlig bloc has no orange tents,” he said.

Experts see several reasons why opposition leaders are endorsing moderation in the pursuit of greater representation.

First, while protest turnout appears higher than for the unsanctioned campaign season rallies, the number of protest participants is not believed to be sufficient to withstand any retaliatory action by police forces. While Azadlig representatives cited turnout numbers of 50,000 and higher for the opposition’s November 13 rally, police estimated only 4,500. Local journalists at the rally estimated a turnout of around 20,000. Some experts doubt the opposition would be able to attract enough people to make a non-stop sit-in action sustainable. “The opposition has almost reached its maximum capacity,” commented political analyst Ilgar Mammadov, a former independent candidate for parliament.

In turn, a smaller turnout would mean less media coverage, and less chance that Western governments “would defend the opposition,” added Mammadov.

Some analysts argue that opposition leaders are too dependent on Western diplomacy to reach their goals. “They [the Azadlig bloc] are doing everything with care because of Western diplomats’ reaction. It is not the way for victory because neither the EU [European Union] nor the United States has so far mentioned the possibility of new elections,” independent political analyst Zardush Alizade said.

Opposition leaders, though, stress that all legal procedures for claiming disputed seats have not yet been exhausted. “The final results ... have not been confirmed by the Constitutional Court. We look forward to seeing that all claims of the opposition are thoroughly examined by the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the Constitutional Court,” said Popular Front Party Deputy Chairman Fuad Mustafayev.

Mustafayev noted that “if the CEC will come to the same result as we did, and confirm that fraud took place in about 100 constituencies, they will have to announce new elections.”

CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov told reporters on November 10 that Commission staff is working night and day to finish investigating some 500 complaints about election violations by November 26, when the CEC is scheduled to complete its review and pass the election results on to the Constitutional Court for validation. So far, the CEC has canceled results in four constituencies and is reviewing results in two constituencies where Azadlig candidates could be named the winners.

Opposition leaders, however, say that they would have preferred that the CEC confirm opposition candidates as the winners in the four constituencies whose results were thrown out rather than schedule fresh elections for those constituencies. “This means that the candidate will have to run from another constituency in January, when the elections will have low voter turnout and much less Western attention and the authorities will feel free to falsify the results,” commented Mustafayev. “This is not satisfactory for us. We demand new elections in all constituencies or restoration of the rights of opposition candidates who won seats.”

Divisions within opposition ranks over this question are already apparent. While YeS bloc leader Eldar Namazov has joined other opposition leaders in calling for a boycott of parliament if 40 seats are not given to opposition candidates, the YeS bloc’s two candidates who were elected members of parliament, Ali Masimli and Vahid Akhmedov (for #113 Sheki City constituency and # 52 Guba constituency, respectively) have stated that they intend to take their seats in the legislature.

Reports have also circulated that the opposition is negotiating with the government about the number of seats it would deem acceptable, rather than defending the claims of each candidate who says that he or she won election. To date, the government has said that only 15-20 percent of the election results – roughly 20-25 seats – could be reconsidered. President Ilham Aliyev and his top aides have repeatedly stated that new elections are impossible.

One Popular Front Party candidate, however, commented that any sign of brokering a deal with the government over opposition seats could have disastrous effects for the movement’s unity. “Opposition candidates who spent their time and money for individual struggles with powerful YAP [governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party] candidates will not forgive any betrayal,” said the candidate, who asked not to be named. “So the leaders face a very difficult choice. If they will take the proposed number of seats, they will lose the support of a large part of party activists. If they will not negotiate, they may lose the support of the West.”

While opposition leaders confirm that talks with the US embassy, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe about the elections continue, they maintain that foreign diplomats do not influence the opposition’s post-election strategy. “We want to know what they [Western diplomats] think. But we are the masters of our own decisions,” said Fahmin Hajiyev, deputy campaign manager for Azadlig.

Amid the debate over the election results, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, one of the Azadlig coalition partner’s, is struggling to contain an image crisis. The party’s reputation took a considerable hit during the campaign, when its chairman, Rasul Guliyev, failed to return to Azerbaijan. Guliyev, a former top official who now faces corruption-related charges, made an abortive attempt to return from exile on October 17. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In connection with this incident, officials leveled additional charges at Guliyev, claiming that he conspired with several officials inside Azerbaijan to launch a coup. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Later, Guliyev, who at the time was a candidate for parliament, stated that he would return by November 3, but the homecoming never happened.

Concern for Guliyev’s safety have been cited as the main reason why he never made the second return attempt, but some analysts fault the opposition leader for indecision. “He neither comes and suffers, nor says that he will never come,” commented Elkhan Shahinoglu, an analyst for the independent Gun newspaper, on November 12.

Police now maintain a constant watch on the Democratic Party headquarters, checking all visiting cars, Turan news agency reported on November 12. On November 3, three days before the elections, police raided the premises for weapons; none were found, but four party members, including the campaign manager, were temporarily detained. Two top party officials are under arrest for involvement in the alleged coup attempt, while another ten activists are being held for organizing a demonstration to welcome Guliyev back to Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, Guliyev himself, once a virtual symbol for the opposition’s election struggle, appears to be fading from public view. The opposition’s November 13 rally included no pictures of the exiled leader and no speech featured his name.

Despite the controversy, Democratic Party officials maintain that their chairman’s position within the party is secure; “Guliyev’s personal [popularity] rating is much higher than that of the party itself,” commented Deputy Chairman Elman Salayev.

Editor’s Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is freelance journalist based in Baku

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Government opposition leaders, from left to right: Isa Gambar, head of the Musavet Party; Lala Shovkhet, head of the Liberal Party; and Ali Kerimli, head of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, wave and speak to a crowd of about 20,000 supporters during the opposition's second government sanctioned post-election rally in Baku. (Sitara Ibrahimova for EurasiaNet)