Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
In-fighting Cripples Azerbaijani Opposition
Azerbaijan's opposition parties are threatening to boycott November's parliamentary elections in protest against new electoral laws imposed by the ruling regime.
However, the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust currently rife in opposition circles looks set to undermine any concerted bid to sabotage the upcoming polls.
Opposition politicians in the former Soviet republic have been fizzing ever since the government announced a new package of electoral reforms this spring. The bill included changes to the central electoral commission which promised the ruling party, Ieni Azerbaijan, increased influence over the proceedings.
However, both opposition protests and a hearing in the US Congress have fallen on deaf ears. A last-ditch attempt to bring the case before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg eventually induced President Heidar Aliev to announce a range of democratic amendments to the bill - but these proposals were later rejected by the government and the law was dragged through parliament with indecent haste.
Aliev himself accepted the turn of events philosophically. "What can I do?" he asked Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the acting chairman of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "That's democracy for you. The same kind of thing probably happens in your parliament, doesn't it?"
"Yes, Mr President, we understand everything," Ferrero-Waldner replied enigmatically.
Smarting from this resounding defeat, the political opposition was forced to resort to tactics employed in 1998 and threatened to boycott the elections.
Two opposition parties, National Independence and the People's Front, promptly recalled their representatives from the central electoral commission whilst a total of 13 parties formally agreed to the boycott.
However, the signed agreement contains an important get-out clause - if any party removes its name from the list, the others are free to follow suit. The clause reflects the atmosphere of distrust currently prevalent amongst the opposition.
Meanwhile, both Musavat and the People's Front have fallen victim to growing internal tensions.
In Musavat, events took an ugly turn when Rauf Arifogly, editor of the popular daily newspaper Ieni Musavat, staged a bid to take second place in the party list (below the party leader Isa Gambar).
The party leadership then took an unprecedented decision to hold an internal vote in an effort to establish the ratings of its existing candidates. As a result, Arifogly took seventh place whilst other surprising results sparked general discontent in the party.
Arifogly has subsequently claimed the voting was fixed and has pledged to publish sensational revelations which, he says, will force several party leaders to resign.
In the People's Front, the situation is even more volatile. The party has split into two rival factions with supporters of Ali Kerimov, the first deputy chairman, forming their own "reformers" party. This group has the support of many young voters as well as the Azadlyg newspaper.
They are opposed by three serving deputy chairmen and MP Mirmakhmud Fattaev, who are collectively known as "the old guard". Categorically opposed to Ali Kerimov's pole position, they are demanding similar "primaries" to those held by the Musavat party.
Now calls for "the old guard" to be expelled from the party are becoming increasingly insistent and, for the time being, their names have been excluded from the party list.
Both sides are accusing each other of collaborating with the authorities and the party chairman, former president Abulfaz Elchibei, has done a disappearing act. It is a familiar story. In 1993, when Colonel Suret Guseinov mounted his political coup, Elchibei took refuge in his native Nakhichevan before meekly handing over the reins of power to Heidar Aliev. Now he is reportedly taking a rest cure in Turkey and waiting for the dust to settle.
It seems unlikely, however, that the opposition will actually boycott the elections. The authorities are merely provoking the opposition parties in a bid to test their mettle.
But the ruling party has powerful weapons at its disposal, enjoying complete control over the state television channel and enormous influence over the local electoral commissions. Undoubtedly, a number of seats will be won by independent candidates or members of satellite parties - if only to maintain the illusion of democracy.
Shahin Rzaev is editor of the Impulse newspaper
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