Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bickering Undermines Azeri Opposition Credibility

They have an uphill task but disunity gives the government an easy ride.
By Samira Ahmedbeyli

An attempt by Azerbaijan’s fractured opposition to unite before December’s municipal elections has collapsed into bickering, once again casting doubts on their claims to be a viable alternative government.



Opposition leaders accuse the government of denying them access to the media and state resources, but have only themselves to blame for the collapse of the Civil Movement for Karabakh and the Republic, the attempted merger between the Musavat and Umid opposition parties, along with a few smaller groups.



Both parties accuse each other of cooperating with the authorities. Musavat refused the offer of 1,000 places on local electoral committees, but Umid did not do so. Arif Hajili, head of Musavat’s electoral staff, said Umid was hurting democracy by creating the impression of pluralism for foreign observers.



“The authorities can give the international community the impression of democratic conditions for holding elections. In reality, the electoral commission is under the government’s control. We suggested recalling the individuals who supposedly represent the opposition, but actually cooperate with the authorities in these electoral commissions. We are not to blame that these people are members of Umid,” he told IWPR.



Umid representatives in turn accused Musavat of dishonesty, and said they had picked a fight for no reason.



“There would be no reason to take our representatives from the electoral commissions. They are honestly doing their duty. If the representatives of Musavat… want to make a political noise before the municipal elections, then let them follow our suggestion of withdrawing their representatives from parliament. Then we would make even more political noise,” said Igbal Agazade, chairman of Umid.



The spat is depressingly familiar to observers of Azerbaijan, where politics are dominated by allies of President Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father as head of state in presidential elections in 2003. Those elections were followed by mass protests by followers of the defeated opposition candidate Isa Gambar, chairman of Musavat.



But since then support for the opposition has shrivelled, as it has become clear that Aliyev will not lose power any time soon, especially since it has become something of a tradition for opposition coalitions to collapse before elections.



“In the run-up to elections these blocks always fall apart. The creation of such a structure, it would seem, is being done under a plan set out by the government. The result of these ‘bitter divorces’ is that the opposition parties forget about the government and attack each other. It is interesting that all these steps that the opposition takes meet the interests of the government,” said Azer Rashidoglu, political commentator from the Ayna-Zerkalo newspaper.



He said the constant bickering weakened the electorate’s faith in democratic reform, which also served the government’s interests. According to the respected political analyst Zardusht Alizade, the government had thoroughly penetrated the opposition parties, and was deliberately setting them at each other to reduce competition for power in the country.



“The government has so oppressed the opposition that it is incapable of action. Some of them were forced to take money for their existence from the government, and they have become a ‘pocket’ opposition for the Aliyev administration. The small number of opposition activists who have not done this are so squashed that they find it hard even to breathe. Maybe some time a new, stronger opposition will emerge, but this will take many years,” Alizade said.



Gambar, who was acting president and speaker of parliament of Azerbaijan after independence, however, is insistent that the opposition is stronger than it looks.



“The government says that the Azerbaijan opposition is very weak, that it has no weight in society and no support base. But in fact political parties do not have freedom of action in this country. Television, which effectively works for the government, is closed to the opposition. There is no freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly,” said Gambar, chairman of Musavat.



“If the opposition is so weak, then why is the government afraid of holding democratic elections? If the government actually is so strong, and the nation supports it, then let it hold free, fair elections, defeat the opposition, show its strength to the people, to international organisations and to the opposition itself. But the government knows this would not happen. In the first democratic elections, the opposition would come to power.”



It is fighting talk, but is not taken seriously by Aliyev’s allies, who dominate parliament. Musavat has only four seats in the 125-member chamber, while Umid has one. The government’s Yeni Azerbaijan party, meanwhile, has 56 seats, while 40 independents can be relied on to vote with it. Aydin Mirzazade, a member of parliament from Yeni Azerbaijan, said all the conditions were in place for free elections and the opposition’s complaints were just sour grapes.



“The opposition will become stronger than the government only when the government is not able to fulfil all its obligations. Only then will the electorate change over to the opposition’s side. As is well known, the current authorities are working well to solve all issues in running the country. Azerbaijan is developing quickly. That means the opposition’s social base is very small and it is much weaker than the government,” he said.



Most independent observers, however, say both sides are talking nonsense. The government does not allow the opposition to compete in any meaningful way, while the opposition’s own squabbles make it unelectable, according to Gorgud, a well-known blogger in Azerbaijan who keeps his real name secret.



“If we had elections for a mayor of Baku, you could understand these ‘scraps’. Then every oligarch would buy an opposition party and would fight for this profitable job, because Baku contains 90 percent of all the financial resources of Azerbaijan. But we do not have an elected mayor; he is appointed by the president, and the municipalities do not have any real power. This means only the personal ambitions of the opposition leaders lie behind all these rows,” he said.



Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan country director. Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR Azerbaijan staff member.