Wednesday, 10 September 2003

COLLAPSED HOPES FOR OPPOSITION UNITY IN AZERBAIJAN

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By Fariz Ismailzade (9/10/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: During the past ten years of Heydar Aliyev’s rule in Azerbaijan, the country’s opposition parties have been at bitter odds with one another in spite of domestic as well as international efforts for them to cooperate. This has seriously weakened their struggle against the ruling party. The major opposition parties, Musavat, Azerbaijan National Independence (ANIP), Popular Front and Democratic Parties have more often focused their struggle on each other than on the ruling regime.
BACKGROUND: During the past ten years of Heydar Aliyev’s rule in Azerbaijan, the country’s opposition parties have been at bitter odds with one another in spite of domestic as well as international efforts for them to cooperate. This has seriously weakened their struggle against the ruling party. The major opposition parties, Musavat, Azerbaijan National Independence (ANIP), Popular Front and Democratic Parties have more often focused their struggle on each other than on the ruling regime. Musavat and the ANIP have been the most irreconcilable, as their leaders Isa Gambar and Etibar Mamedov have a history of personal rivalry dating back to the Popular Front’s times. In 1998, Mamedov ruined the all-opposition’s boycott strategy by participating in the presidential elections and in many ways legitimizing its multi-party character. In 2000, prior to the parliamentary elections, Musavat ruined its relations with another major party, the Popular Front, by recognizing its breakaway “classics” wing, and hence burning bridges with the core “reformers” wing of the party. The Popular Front’s leader, Ali Kerimli, and ANIP subsequently signed a memorandum of cooperation. Considering this history of rivalry between these parties, talks on a possible unified candidate from the opposition in the 2003 presidential elections seemed unrealistic. Yet the August 2002 referendum on constitutional amendments brought opposition leaders closer, as they all realized that they should unite their resources against Aliyev’s regime. In the Summer of 2003, the idea of a unified candidate picked up new momentum, after Ali Kerimli expressed his willingness to withdraw his candidacy should other major opposition leaders agree on a unified candidate. The American National Democratic Institute even invited the three leaders to Washington for consultations on the issue of a unified candidate. The hopes among the opposition circles, although hugely inflated for several weeks, collapsed after the ANIP and Musavat leaders were unable to agree on a single candidate, and the NDI-sponsored trip to Washington was cancelled. A subsequent trip to London by all three leaders and a subsequent final decision not to nominate a unified candidate buried the issue for good, and caused considerable damages to the opposition’s image, both domestically and externally.

IMPLICATIONS: As the election date nears, it is increasingly evident that the opposition will approach the elections in two main camps. Musavat and its 20 smaller allies will be supporting the candidacy of the Isa Gambar, while ANIP will attempt to finalize its negotiations with the Popular Front and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party led by the exiled former Speaker of Parliament Rasul Guliyev, to secure their support for the candidacy of Etibar Mamedov. Other candidates from the opposition, such as Lala Shovkat Haciyeva of the Liberal Party, and Sabir Rustamkhanli of the Civil Solidarity Party, do not pose much of a threat to the ruling party. Meanwhile, the intra-opposition debates are turning into a farce. In fact, never before, has normally dull Azerbaijani State Television been so entertaining as it was on Saturday, September 6. Fuad Mustafayev, a representative of the Popular Front party, stood up from his chair during a live debate and threw his fulll water glass into the face of his opponent, Hafiz Haciyev of the minor “Modern Musavat” party. The latter did not wait long, and threw his own glass and then his chair on Mustafayev\'s face as well. Other participants of the debate round table stood up and starting arguing and separating the fighters. It was a classical repeat of the famous Zhirinovski- Nemtsov glass-throwing incident that took place in Russia several years ago. This hooliganism on live TV, although bad in itself, is only the tip of the iceberg. It illustrates how the opposition parties are being significantly damaged by so-called “fake” election candidates that have been registered by the Central Election Commission. These candidates, such as Haciyev and Gudrat Hassanguliyev of the “Popular Front” citizens’ initiative are normally breakaway factions of major opposition parties, accused of being masterminded by the ruling elites to split the opposition. Their roles seem to be to confuse voters, splitting the votes of the opposition parties and putting dirt on the names of the opposition candidates. The current campaign for the presidential post has been full of the elements of \"black PR\" effectively learned by Azerbaijani political parties from abroad. Haciyev spends all his free air-time, allocated by the Central Election Commission, to cover the opposition leaders with the dirt. In his last speech, Haciyev accused Musavat leader Isa Gambar of being a KGB agent, ANIP leader Etibar Mamedov of collaborating with Armenians, and Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli of “loosing his manhood” while in jail. Although these accusations are ridiculous in nature, they do create a negative image for the opposition candidates, and thus Hafiz Haciyev achieves his goal. Other instruments are also being used to weaken the opposition. Posters of opposition parties are regularly torn down, and interruption of public meetings of the opposition candidates is also commonplace.

CONCLUSIONS: The regime’s “divide and rule” policy has worked once again and the opposition’s inability to unite will significantly reduce their chances for the upcoming elections. Together they could have been a major force and significant alternative to the ruling party, yet their standing got ruined among their own ordinary members. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s unification around the new prime minister Ilham Aliyev, the son of the President, have dispersed all talks on a possible collapse of the ruling party anytime soon. Ilham Aliyev will maintain a tight grip on the financial and administrative resources of the country to ensure his election to the Presidency. Long expected and much hoped consultations between the major opposition parties did not produce any concrete results on the issue of the unified candidate. Personal ambitions and high egos of several leaders from the opposition prevented the unification of the anti-Aliyev forces. This, in turn, will significantly hurt the standing of the opposition forces on October 15 presidential elections. Should the opposition loose the upcoming elections, there will be a greater pressure on the leaders to step down as they failed to ensure the unity and thus victory. In this situation, the standing of Ali Kerimli of the Popular Front, who offered to sacrifice his candidate for the unity of the opposition will certainly rise.

AUTHOR BIO: Fariz Ismailzade is a Baku-based freelance writer on politics and socio-economic development in the South Caucasus.

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