Ali Kerimli, leader of the divided opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party's (PNFA) Supreme Council, established a working group in early April to discuss reuniting his "reformist" wing with the party's "classic" branch. The group, with Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegate Gulamhusein Alibeyli acting as chair, began negotiations with Mirmahmud Fattayev of the PNFA's classic branch to discuss reuniting the party. By April 15, Kerimli and other opposition leaders were vocally questioning the legitimacy of by-elections to Parliament. A reunited PNFA could make such questions the artillery in a potent attack on President Heidar Aliyev's succession plans.
The Popular Front suffered its most grievous wound after the death of its founder, former president Abulfaz Elchibey, before the parliamentary elections of late 2000. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Fattayev's "conservators" held an October 2000 summit solidifying the split. But neither Fattayev nor Kerimli wanted the role of "pocket opposition," and the Aliyev corps saw potential in supporting a third branch that it could co-opt.
Amid talk of "uniting the party from the bottom," Kerimli and Fattayev sought to forestall the creation of a Popular Front that made both of them superfluous. The reformers resisted deep negotiations before achieving concrete results. By the end of March, though, Fattayev had joined with Mikayil Ragimov, Shamil Guliyev, Zohrab Abdullayev and Yegana Mehtieva. They met with Alibeyli and four of his associates: Arif Pashaev, Nariman Gasimoglu, Fuad Mustafayev and Hasan Kerimov.
Given the severity of the party's split, nobody should expect a perfect fusion right away. "First of all we must establish contact between the two groups," said Alibeyli. "To dispute who will lead PNFA in case of its uniting is premature. That is another question. Primarily we will create conditions for uniting of PNFA's two parts. If merging will take place, then the congress will decide who will become its chairman." In order to forge ahead, then, analysts expect party officials to revisit the results of the October 28-29, 2000 Congress.
This clear course implies a clear conflict: the question of who leads the party was what split it in the first place. With a year and a half in which to select and present a candidate for presidential elections, the factions' leaders must overcome whatever misgivings they might have about consensus. Many analysts believe the solution for this situation is to establish the institution of cochairmen. If nothing else, the election of Kerimli and Fattayev as co-chiefs would satisfy both "classics" and "reformers" while forestalling efforts to create a third Popular Front wing. Kerimli, a Member of Parliament who enjoys considerable support from the West, could presumably emerge as the presidential candidate. If the factions fail to harmonize, the emergence of a third Popular Front party will become more likely.
Other political parties and movements are undertaking attempts at joint action as well. On April 9, for the first time after a long break, the Center of Political Thought convened a meeting of the heads of several parties. At the meeting, according to the Turan news agency, the sides released a joint statement that emphasized the parties' mutual commitment to democratic principles and fair elections. The parties also agreed not to tar each other with negative publicity. The reformist wing of the Popular Front attended this meeting, while the Musavat party joined with the classicist wing and the Democratic party to plan a protest on April 27.
As the various opposition parties coalesce, Azerbaijani oil interests and cronies of President Aliyev remain wary of any potential instability. Lala Shovkat, who chairs the Liberal party, described the current "stage of opposition integration" as a chance to undermine Aliyev's hand-picked successor. "If there are several centers of opposition, inevitably they will fight each other," said Shovkat. "At this dire moment in the country, we should stand above it and take responsibility in front of the nation." [For more information see related Eurasia Insight arcticle].
Naila Sohbetqizi is a freelance journalist based in Baku.
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