Analysts Question Azeri Election Boycott

By opting out, the opposition will hand victory to the incumbent, for little gain.

Analysts Question Azeri Election Boycott

By opting out, the opposition will hand victory to the incumbent, for little gain.

Friday, 29 August, 2008

A decision by all the major opposition parties in Azerbaijan to boycott the upcoming presidential election will be counterproductive as it will merely hand the incumbent Ilham Aliev victory on a plate, local analysts say.

The boycott is a rare show of unity by the normally fractured opposition, but critics argue that this new-found determination is misdirected.

With no heavyweights among the seven candidates who have declared they are running against Aliev, he will inevitably be re-elected for another five years on October 15.

Plans to boycott the election were first floated by the Azadlig bloc earlier in the summer. Azadlig brings together the Popular Front, the Liberal Party and the Civic and Development Party.

More recently, on August 3) the other major opposition groups said they would take a similar stand. They include the Musavat party, the Democratic Party, the Open Society Party, the Classical Popular Front and the Party of National Independence.

“The majority of [opposition] members of parliament voted for the boycott [on August 3]. The rest had no option but to bow to the majority,” Musavat chairman Isa Gambar told IWPR.

Gambar stood against Aliev in the last presidential ballot, held in 2003.

Other significant players have joined the boycott. Eldar Namazov, a former senior regime figure seen as a potential candidate for the opposition, has declined to run and insists he was not pressured into that decision.

“I did talk to international organisations before taking this important decision, but I took it independently,” he said. “I am sure I have made the right choice.”

The opposition argues that recent changes to electoral legislation make a fair ballot impossible, and that participating would only legitimise the result.

On June 2, the Azerbaijani parliament – which is dominated by the pro-presidential Yeni Azerbaijan party – passed a set of amendments to the law by 100 votes to three.

The opposition argues that the changes are retrograde and will make it easier for the regime to sweep the board in elections.

For a start, there will be fewer opportunities for non-regime candidates to make inroads, given that the campaign period has been cut from 120 to 75 days and that state television will no longer give free airtime to presidential candidates. The Azerbaijan Public Television channel will still provide some free coverage.

“From now, Public Television will provide just three hours of airtime for the candidates,” said Mansum Bayramov, a senior member of the Popular Front Party. “They have also introduced tougher requirements for filing lawsuits [about the electoral process] and getting complaints reviewed in courts.”

Meanwhile, the amendments failed to include one key opposition demand – that the opposition should get equal representation on electoral commissions in order to reduce the scope for vote-rigging.

“The authorities always falsify elections and do not create the conditions for fair competition,” said the Popular Front Party’s chairman, Ali Kerimli. “This time, they have created a legislative basis for their games and inserted reactionary amendments into the electoral code.

“Participating in this election would therefore merely serve to justify the victory for the authorities’ candidate. For that reason, we have decided to boycott the election.”

Azerbaijan has a history of troubled elections. In the last presidential ballot, Ilham Aliev won a landslide when he stood for the first time, replacing his ailing father Heydar Aliev, who died soon afterwards.

International election observers said the election campaign was plagued by voter intimidation, violence and biased media coverage. There was street violence after the result was announced as police clamped down on protests.

Observers from the OSCE and Council of Europe observers said the parliamentary election of 2005 also fell short of international standards. The ruling Yeni Azerbaijan was awarded 94 per cent of the vote.

Despite this record, many independent analysts are questioning the opposition’s decision to opt out.

Aliev’s current challengers included Igbal Agazade, who heads the small Umid party, a pensioner, a nurse, and an unemployed person – none of them likely to steal many votes from Aliev, who sits atop a powerful political establishment and an oil economy.

“None of these prospective candidates is a serious rival for the current president,” said political analyst Rasim Musabekov. “Ilham Aliyev will have no rivals.”

Political scientist Leyla Alieva argued that by taking part, the opposition would at least create the “preconditions for competition”.

Another analyst, Zardusht Alizade, said it would have made more sense to rally around a strong contender like Namazov, although he now seems to have ruled himself out.

“Eldar Namazov is the only person with the capacity to effect regime change, and the entire opposition should be supporting him to realise that potential. But it hasn’t happened,” said Alizade.

Ilgar Mamedov, another political analyst, suggested the opposition had given the election up for lost because it knew it had no chance anyway.

“These parties, led by precisely the same leaders, have lost eight elections in a row, so their decision to boycott this one is just an admission of weakness,” he said.

Members of the ruling establishment have taken a similarly dismissive view of the opposition boycott.

“If the public thinks Ilham Aliyev has no serious rivals in the presidential election, that is not our fault,” said Ali Hasanov, an official in the presidential administration.

All the candidates were on an equal footing, he said, adding that “the strongest one will win”.

According to Siyavush Novruzov, a member of parliament from Yeni Azerbaijan, “It is ridiculous to think that if one party refuses to run for the presidency, then it’s undemocratic for another one to take part. “It’s like saying that if pupils who get poor marks or break the rules don’t go to school, then classes must be cancelled.”

The unanimity displayed in public statements from the opposition does not mean all its members are comfortable with the decision.

Adil Geybulla, a member of Musavat’s ruling council, said he had opposed the boycott and had tried to persuade other members not to back it.

Now, he said, “I am forced to respect the decision of the majority. Time will show whether that decision was right or wrong.”

Another Musavat member, Hukmet Hajizade, is similarty unhappy, saying the opposition is missing a valuable opportunity to take on the regime.

“I think that refusing to run for the presidency means closing a window that opens only once in five years. The Musavat party should have shown it can participate in elections even under the worst of conditions,” he said.

There have been signs that individual opposition politicians might be tempted to go it alone.

Rauf Arifoglu, a Musavat member who is chief editor of the party’s newspaper Yeni Musavat, indicated that he might run in an interview with the Prague-based Radio Liberty.

When, however, his party colleagues reacted angrily, accusing him of pandering to the authorities, Arifoglu was forced to release a statement on August 8 saying that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

“My statement about possibly running for the presidency was just an expression of protest at the decision taken by Musavat’s council,” said the statement. “I believe the Musavat party must stand for the presidency and fight to the end. But I had no serious intention to nominate my candidature for the presidency.”

Another major opposition force, the Popular Front Party, also has its dissenters. Gulamhussein Alibeyli, who chaired the Popular Front’s ruling council, resigned from the party on August 11and applied to the electoral authorities stand as a presidential candidate.

“I have left the party because I do not share its decision to boycott the election,” he told IWPR. “I intend to nominate myself as a candidate for the presidency.”

Samira Ahmedbeyli is an independent journalist in Baku.

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