For Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential elections, the country’s main opposition bloc thinks, two potential candidates could be better than one. On August 24, the National Council of Democratic Forces submitted paperwork to register a prominent historian as its backup candidate should election officials reject Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov’s candidacy.
Sixty-one-year-old Jamil Hasanli, a former parliamentarian and deputy chairperson of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, one of the country’s oldest opposition forces, is best known as a Baku State University history professor and as the author of several books on foreign policy under the pre-Soviet Azerbaijani Democratic Republic and on the Cold War.
Ibragimbekov, currently in Moscow, was tapped as the National Council’s choice for president on July 2, but, saying that he fears arrest, has not returned to Azerbaijan. Since his nomination, he has tried unsuccessfully to revoke his Russian citizenship so that he can run for president. (Azerbaijani election law bans dual citizens from running for office.)
But Russian President Vladimir Putin has given no indication that he is eager to honor the request in time for Ibrahimbekov to meet Azerbaijan’s September 9 deadline for registration of presidential candidates.
In an August 23 interview with Mediaforum.az, Ibragimbekov said that he doubts Putin will revoke his Russian citizenship.
Apparently aware that the odds are against him, Ibrahimbekov agreed to Hasanli as the National Council’s backup candidate. The National Council is not an official group, and, therefore, can give its nod to more than one candidate.
Hasanli, who said he acted after “repeated requests from Rustam Ibrahimbekov,” told National Council members on August 23 that he would step down if the Central Election Commission registers the cinema celebrity’s candidacy.
The Commission now has up to five days to accept or reject Hasanli’s application. If they give the green light, the opposition has to collect 40,000 signatures in at least 65 of the country’s total 125 constituencies before September 9 to finalize the historian’s candidacy.
The National Council has been divided over what strategy to adopt if Ibragimbekov is barred from running for president. Some insisted on having a back-up candidate, while others believed that an election boycott would be the best way to go. Still others wanted separate candidates to run -- Isa Gambar, leader of the longtime opposition Musavat Party, and Popular Front Chaiperson Ali Kerimli, among them.
In the end, though, the group realized that unity was more important than personalities, commented the National Council’s head of public relations, Mehman Aliyev, director of the pro-opposition Turan news agency.
Given the time constraints, the opposition made the best choice possible, said Aliyev, who also was among the possible back-up candidates considered. “We did not have much time and I believe that having another single candidate from civil society, not from a political party, is correct, while there is no consensus among [the National Council’s] parties,” Aliyev told EurasiaNet.org. *
The government has not reacted to the opposition group’s decision yet. On August 25, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party’s nominee, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev, became the first registered candidate.
The government, though, has not been inactive. Half an hour after the National Council announced the back-up candidate for Ibragimbekov, the general prosecutor’s office announced that it had launched an investigation into allegations made by one former opposition activist that the movement is planning to stage “provocations” and mass disorder in Azerbaijan during the October vote.
The ex-activist, Aflan Ibrahimov, told pro-government media that Kerimli and Eldar Namazov, a former senior adviser to the late President Heydar Aliyev, are allegedly behind “these insidious plans," Contact.az reported.
National Council activists deny the allegations categorically. Speaking to EurasiaNet.org, however, they did not exclude the possibility that the group’s leaders and other members could be arrested as part of the investigation.
The government has not elaborated what evidence exists to support the claims against the National Council. Throughout the former Soviet Union, however, investigations into alleged opposition plots to cause “public disorder” during a national election are routine.
------ Mehman Aliyev formerly served as chairperson of the board of the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City, a separate part of the Open Society Foundations network of which the former Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan was once part.