Azerbaijani Opposition Plans New Wave Of Protests
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Barring an act of God or an Arab-Spring-style revolution, incumbent Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev will almost certainly be reelected for a third term in the election due in October 2013.
That near certainty is, however, unlikely to deter the opposition Public Chamber from stepping up its ongoing efforts to create the “level playing field” that it considers a prerequisite for truly free and fair elections.
The Public Chamber comprises representatives of several long-established opposition parties. It was established some two months after the November 2010 parliamentary election in which mainstream opposition parties failed to win a single one of the 125 mandates.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) assessed that ballot as failing to meet a number of key conditions for democratic elections.
Specifically, the OSCE noted that "the fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression were limited, and a vibrant political discourse facilitated by free and independent media was almost impossible. A deficient candidate registration process, a restrictive political environment, unbalanced and biased media coverage, disparity in access to resources to mount an effective campaign, misuse of administrative resources as well as interference by local authorities in favor of candidates from the ruling party created an uneven playing field for candidates.”
Two senior Azerbaijani officials -- presidential adviser Ali Hasanov and Ali Akhmedov, who is one of the deputy chairmen of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) founded by Aliyev’s father and predecessor as president, Heidar Aliyev -- have affirmed in recent weeks that YAP will nominate Aliyev as its presidential candidate. Those statements put to rest persistent speculation that Aliyev’s wife Mehriban might run in his place.
Controversial Third Term
A second YAP functionary, party deputy executive secretary Mubariz Gurbanly, similarly affirmed that Aliyev is YAP’s only candidate for next year’s ballot.
He dismissed as “incomprehensible” and “a lie” opposition speculation to the contrary.
Gurbanly also rejected as lacking any legal foundation the argument adduced by Ali Kerimli, head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and a leading Public Chamber member, that Aliyev does not have the right to seek a third presidential term because the amendments to the Azerbaijan Republic constitution passed in 2009 that abolished the ban on one person serving more than two consecutive terms are not retroactive.
At a session in Baku on July 22, Public Chamber members reached agreement on launching a new wave of protests this fall to demand the creation of conditions conducive to a free and fair ballot.
Specifically, they plan to call for the release of political prisoners, guarantees of freedom of assembly and the media, and amendments to the Electoral Code.
In Kerimli’s words, “you can’t talk of a democratic preelection atmosphere as long as there are 70 political prisoners, meetings are banned, journalists are in jail, and the authorities control the election commissions.”
The composition of election commissions has been a bone of contention for over a decade. Opposition parties have lobbied tirelessly but without success for the right to equal representation on the Central Election Commission. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission of legal experts has likewise sought but failed to persuade the Azerbaijani authorities to liberalize specific articles of election-related legislation.
In a bid to rectify that failure, in mid-June, the Public Chamber convened a public debate on amending the Electoral Code in line with the recommendations contained in the OSCE’s final report on the November 2010 parliamentary election.
Speakers proceeded from the premise that holding free and fair elections under the current law is impossible.
Participants highlighted three main demands: equal representation of YAP and the opposition on election commissions at all levels; revising the existing conditions for registration to abolish pretexts for barring “undesirable”candidates (for example, by rejecting as forged more than the maximum permitted percentage of the signatures collected in their support); and ensuring the fair and timely examination of complaints.
They agreed to set up a working group that will draft and submit to parliament proposed amendments to the existing law.
In the event that those proposed amendments are rejected, they will consider calling for a boycott of the election.
Whether that boycott threat is intended seriously, and how the Azerbaijani authorities and the international community might react to it, is impossible to say at this juncture.
In 1998, five of Azerbaijan’s most respected opposition party leaders boycotted the presidential election in the hope, which proved mistaken, that the international community would therefore condemn the vote as undemocratic.
The two most respected potential opposition candidates -- Kerimli and Musavat Party chairman Isa Qambar – both declined to run against Aliyev in 2008 on the grounds that the odds were stacked in his favor.
A repetition of that double-boycott could therefore result in Aliyev receiving an even larger percentage of the vote in 2013 than the 88.73 percent he garnered in 2008.
There are, however, two alternative scenarios. The first, as outlined by Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Serdar Jalaloglu, is that all serious opposition parties unite and pledge to support a single opposition candidate.
“We should try to come out with a single candidate, a single team, a single platform, because in the presidential election the Azerbaijani voter finds himself faced with a choice between two forces – the authorities and the opposition,” Jalaloglu argued at a session of the Musavat party’s governing board earlier this month.
An effort to garner support for a single opposition candidate was undertaken in 2003, with Kerimli opting out in favor of Qambar, but Qambar then failed to reach agreement with Etibar Mammedov of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party.
According to the official results, Aliyev polled 76.84 percent of the vote. Qambar placed second with 13.97 percent, and Mammedov fourth with 2.92 percent.
Jalaloglu admitted that he considers it unlikely the opposition will close ranks behind one candidate in 2013. He believes both Kerimli, 47, and Qambar, 55, aspire to become that single candidate and that neither will withdraw in favor of the other.
A second, albeit hypothetical, scenario is that a respected public figure who is not a politician might register for the vote.
Eldar Namazov, who served for several years as an advisor to Heidar Aliyev before quitting to join the opposition, said in a recent interview that the Forum of Intelligentsia he co-founded might back such a candidate.