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Azeri Opposition Fails to Pick Leader

President Aliev's regime improves its election chances as a London opposition meeting ends in failure.
By Gulnaz Gulieva

A "London summit" convened by four leaders of the Azerbaijani opposition in the hope of fielding a common candidate to fight October's presidential election ended in failure last weekend.


Of the four men who met in London on August 24 three are officially registered as candidates for the October 15 ballot. They are Isa Gambar, former speaker of parliament and head of the Musavat party, Etibar Mamedov, head of the National Independence Party, and Ali Kerimli, leader of the "reform" wing of the Popular Front.


Kerimli, who at the age of 38 was the youngest participant in the meeting, made it clear he was willing to stand aside in favour of another candidate.


The fourth man present at the meeting was Rasul Guliev, another former speaker of parliament and once a close ally of President Heidar Aliev. He has not been registered for the poll, on the grounds that he now lives in the United States.


However, the meeting broke up with only a shared commitment to form a new body called the Union of Democratic Stability to monitor the fairness of the elections, and an appeal to the international community to send observers to the polls. There was no agreement on the main point on the agenda - a joint candidate to avoid splitting the opposition vote - and both Mamedov and Gambar left determined to stand in the election.


Twelve candidates have been registered for the ballot, including the current president Heidar Aliev and his son Ilham, who was made prime minister and first in line of succession to his father on August 4. Aliev junior is currently visiting his father, who is sick and undergoing treatment in Cleveland, Ohio.


Most observers now expect that Ilham Aliev will run alone as the candidate of the governing regime in October - and that he therefore stands the best chance of being Azerbaijan's next leader. "Very likely, the father will step aside for the son," said Eldar Namazov, a former top official in the presidential administration who is now a political analyst.


The opposition parties face an uphill struggle contesting the election against the Aliev administration, which exerts strong control over both television and the state bureaucracy. In order to make an impact they need to select a single candidate and to mobilise the public, but so far they have failed to do either of those things.


There were mutual recriminations after the failure of the London talks. Some blamed the political organisation Our Azerbaijan, which had already said it would support Isa Gambar in any eventuality. Gambar had also tried unsuccessfully to invite another opposition leader sympathetic to him, Mirmahmud Fattayev, head of the "classical" wing of the Popular Front, to the meeting.


While Gambar is widely regarded as the most popular opposition candidate, Mamedov later said only that, "We agreed to support any candidate [of the four] who reaches the second round of voting as our own."


However, presidential elections in Azerbaijan have never gone to a second round. In 1998 Mamedov was the joint opposition candidate. Officially, he polled 11 per cent of the vote, losing convincingly to Heidar Aliev, although unofficial monitors said he actually received 37 per cent of votes cast.


The opposition leaders have a long history of mutual mistrust. At various times both Mamedov and Kerimli have been accused of collaborating with the Aliev administration, while Guliev actually was in the past a member of the president's inner circle.


The government has already taken heart from the London talks. "It was just a high-profile jaunt abroad, because these people care far more about their own ambitions than about any plans for the development of the country or its independence," Arif Rahimzade, first deputy head of the ruling New Azerbaijan party told IWPR. "So the outcome was perfectly logical. I expected nothing else."


Namazov noted that the new Union of Democratic Stability was little more than "candy for the public" when the opposition already has a Coordinating Council, performing very similar functions.


"The public did not get a single candidate from the democratic camp, and now the opposition candidates have turned into opponents of one another, fighting for the same electorate and splitting it," he said.


When the Turan news agency asked a group of experts earlier this month who they thought would be most likely to win a free and fair election in Azerbaijan, the consensus was that the five leading candidates were Gambar, Kerimli, Mamedov, Ilham Aliev and Heidar Aliev - in that order. However the two Alievs combined got a better rating than the front-runner Gambar.


An opinion poll of 1,000 Azerbaijanis conducted by the ADAM sociological centre suggested that 41 per cent would vote for either of the two Alievs, 21 per cent for Gambar, four per cent for Rasul Guliev, and three per cent each for Mamedov and Kerimli.


Togrul Juvarly, an analyst with Turan news agency, said that the failure of the London meeting had damaged the opposition's reputation amongst the public at large - and it was not very good to begin with.


"The fundamental reason why the opposition cannot agree is that our political parties do not reflect the social base which elects them, but are just a reflection of personalities and party leaders," Juvarly said.


"The personality struggle means that the support of the electorate will be dissipated. The main goal of the candidates ought to be guaranteeing that the greatest number of the electorate go out to vote, and yet the public divisions among the opposition damage the public's view both of them and of the election as a whole."


Gulnaz Gulieva is a journalist with Caspian Business News in Baku