Battle Lines Drawn for Azeri Election

Opinion is still divided on whether the opposition can topple the government at the ballot box – and whether the vote will be fair enough to show the true results.

Battle Lines Drawn for Azeri Election

Opinion is still divided on whether the opposition can topple the government at the ballot box – and whether the vote will be fair enough to show the true results.

Azerbaijan-watchers both inside and outside the country are on tenterhooks as they wait to see what happens on November 6 when the country elects a new parliament - and just as important, what will come afterwards.

Despite their many deep-rooted differences, Azerbaijan’s opposition and government are in agreement on one thing – the elections to the Milli Mejlis, or national assembly, could determine the country’s political direction for years to come.

Battle lines are drawn in this fractious Caspian nation. On one side stands president Ilham Aliyev’s ruling Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party, YAP. On the other is the anti-government bloc Azadlig, which unites the three most important parties of the so-called “radical” opposition: the Popular Front, Musavat and the Democratic Party.

Both sides claim that they will triumph at the ballot box. Observers worry that, as in past elections, the government will resort to massive ballot-rigging to ensure a YAP victory, or that the opposition will respond with violence, perhaps in response to tough police action.

These are the first elections since 2003, when Ilham Aliev took over from his father Heidar, the country’s long-ruling strongman. It is also the first parliamentary contest since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, CoE, the continent’s main human rights watchdog, in 2001.

Many observers have predicted – indeed, some seem to be hoping – that Azerbaijan’s iron-fisted regime is the next in line to fall in a revolution similar to those seen in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

There is a high level of international attention. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the CoE have sent a record number of observers for the vote.

Foreign governments have also been watching the pre-election campaign closely, and the United States has funded an exit poll. Foreign journalists have descended in droves on the capital Baku.

It is somewhat ironic that parliamentary elections should be assigned so much importance in this oil-rich Caspian nation. Under the two Aliev presidencies, the Milli Mejlis has exercised little real authority.

The country has never known a contest of such magnitude. A total of 1,598 candidates are contending for just 125 seats. Just under half of those campaigning are standing as independents, while the rest represent some 48 different parties.

For Azadlig’s leaders, the vote will spell the difference between dictatorship and democracy. YAP officials, on the other hand, say a strong showing will give them a mandate for wide-ranging political and economic reforms.

"After the elections we are expecting serious changes, in the shape of a younger and more professional government," said Anar Mamedkhanov, director of Prognoz, a social research centre – and a friend of President Aliev. "In general, we will see qualitative reforms both in the capital and in the regions."

Both YAP and Azadlig officials, unsurprisingly, predict an overwhelming victory for their respective parties at the polls.

“The opposition is fated to suffer a loss in the upcoming elections,” said Gultekin Hajiyeva, a pro-government candidate. “They have very few candidates in the regions who are electable.”

“They’ve been stewing in their own juice, and ever since 1988 we’ve seen the same faces, the same slogans. People are sick of them. The opposition needs to undergo serious reform.”

The Popular Front led the country in 1992-93, but fell from power amidst political chaos and battlefield losses in the war over Nagorny Karabakh.

Popular Front chairman Ali Kerimli accuses the government of employing “dirty methods” in the campaign, but he insists the opposition will still triumph.

“The Azadlig bloc is strong enough that the government will lose even if it uses such methods,” said Kerimli.

Opposition members claim that the government has waged a campaign to discredit them, for instance luring a member of an opposition youth group to accept money from foreign agents, reportedly to organise a coup d’etat.

International observers agree that so far the government has failed to live up to commitments to conduct free and fair elections.

Opposition activists have been beaten, harassed and arrested, while local officials have interfered with the election process, international watchdog groups say. The country’s media is heavily biased towards the president and ruling party.

Indeed the question for many – given Azerbaijan’s history of electoral falsification – is not whether there will be violations on election day, but how widespread they will be and what the opposition will do if it loses as a result of ballot-rigging.

According to the ADAM polling group, which has ties to the opposition, Azadlig would win 31 per cent of the vote with YAP drawing 23 per cent – assuming the vote were fair. Two other groupings, the moderate opposition New Politics bloc (Yeni Siyaset or YES) and the Liberal Party, would receive six and 2.5 per cent, respectively.

On the other side of the fence, Mamedkhanov says such predictions are impossible to make. He points out that in previous contests, one-fifth of the parliament was selected according to what percentage each of the parties received in the overall vote.

Now, however, each of the 125 parliamentary seats will be contested individually in a first-past-the-post system, which, according to Mamedkhanov, complicates the pollsters’ ability to break down the vote according to political party.

“How can they lie to the people in such a way?” said Mamedkhanov, referring to opinion polls. “Since this is being done according to a majoritarian system, what sense is there in talking about the parties’ percentages across the country?”

For many, though, the election’s outcome is a foregone conclusion.

“The government has used its unlimited financial resources and its propaganda methods to assure that they will receive the lion’s share of the vote,” said political analyst Zardusht Alizade.

“The opposition can now only hope that the administration will show them a bit of charity and give them a few seats.”

The Ukrainian-style “Orange Revolution” that some analysts were predicting now seems a distant prospect, since the opposition is still reeling from the drama of recent weeks. Rasul Guliyev, an opposition leader who has lived in exile for the last eight years, cancelled a highly-anticipated return at the last moment, and top government officials were subsequently arrested on charges that they had conspired with him in a coup plot.

Though details of the alleged conspiracy are murky and in part contradictory, the case allowed the government to send the message that it retains total control and is prepared to act resolutely to keep it.

The possibility of post-election violence is nevertheless high. The 2003 presidential election – a contest marred by massive violations on the part of the government, according to international observers – saw pitched battles between police and opposition supporters.

Some analysts believe that the Azadlig bloc is preparing mass unrest as a last resort, in the event that it loses.

Government officials have promised to use “all means necessary” to put down what they call “provocations” from the opposition.

However, Kerimli rejects the use of violence, although he says that if Azadlig fails to gain the victory he expects, his movement will initiate mass protests.

“There are two possibilities – either the government resorts to massive fraud, or it recognises our victory,” said Kerimli. If the vote is fixed, he warns that “we will employ all judicial and political means either to get the elections annulled, or, most likely, to demand Ilham Aliev’s resignation”.

Kerimli said Azadlig would use only “constitutional” methods ranging from demonstrations and hunger strikes to court cases.

“Our methods are peaceful – we do not want any revolutions,” he insisted. “And if nothing illegal happens from November 6 to 7, then I will spend the night at home in bed.”

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s country director in Azerbaijan.

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