You could call them the yin and yang of Azerbaijani politics. For nearly the past 20 years, whenever an Aliyev has been president of Azerbaijan, poised against him have been 55-year-old Isa Gambar and 47-year-old Ali Kerimli, leaders of the country’s two largest opposition forces, the Musavat Party and the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan.
But, now, in the run-up to the country’s 2013 presidential election, one prominent young civil-society activist and his supporters are asserting it’s time Azerbaijan found other opposition politicians to lead the charge. The dispute reflects not only a difference in perspective on tactics, but also an apparent generational divide between the middle-aged Gambar and Kerimli, who entered politics under Soviet rule, and younger, often foreign-educated, activists, who have come of age in an era when change can seem just a mouse-click away.
As in the past, the political argument is playing out primarily in Baku, among highly educated intellectuals and white-collar workers. But unlike in the past, it is a dispute that gets its momentum from the Internet.
The debate kicked off with an August blog post by 32-year-old blogger and former political prisoner Emin Milli. In it, Milli criticized Gambar for not joining street protesters in 2003 to decry the “falsified” presidential election (in which Gambar was a candidate) that brought President Ilham Aliyev to power after the death of his father, Heydar. Milli blamed Gambar’s absence on what he described as a passivity born of alleged international diplomatic pressure and a fear of losing supposed party access to foreign funding. “[W]e can not [sic] let it happen again . . .” he wrote. “We must PURIFY the democratic struggle first, then we will WIN.”
Some Azerbaijanis agree that Gambar and Kerimli both have lost their chance to bring democratic change to Azerbaijan. Forty-year-old Natig Jafarly, the co-founder and executive secretary of the REAL (Real Alternative) movement, a small-scale opposition group, argues that the two have fallen into the trap of letting the government set the agenda for election issues rather than proposing their own ideas.
Twenty-four-year-old Baku businessperson Aziz Shahhuseynov, who has followed the dispute on Facebook, agrees. Azerbaijan’s opposition “is mostly an opposition of ‘rejection,’ condemning everything the government does,” Shahhuseynov said. “I would like to see an opposition of proposals, with its own program.”
The campaign to heighten international awareness of Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses ahead of this May’s Eurovision Song Contest – a campaign in which both Musavat and the Popular Front were active – appeared likely to buck that trend, but the initiative lost momentum once Eurovision ended.
The campaign, though, arguably made a move toward addressing another frequently cited weak spot for the two opposition parties – lack of contact with ordinary people.
“They do not always need to organize pickets or rallies to send their messages and to give people a chance to talk to them,” said political commentator Toghrul Juvarli, who works for the opposition-friendly Turan news agency. “It’s enough to visit crowded places and talk to people.”
Thirty-year-old democracy activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who spent over a year in prison on charges of dodging military service after he called for anti-government protests via Facebook, believes that the opposition has also failed by focusing most of its attention on Baku, rather than trying to involve the regions, and by sidestepping specific policy proposals.
In response, Isa Gambar contends that Musavat has tried to unify groups seeking democratic change in Azerbaijan, but “most people, including those who criticize us, have shown no interest in it.” The country’s mainstream opposition, he claimed, should not be shown the door, but, rather, “should be renewed.” “[M]any new people” have joined Musavat in the past “five to seven years,” he told EurasiaNet.org, adding that some of “the most popular groups in social media are those created by those in opposition.”
Ali Kerimli, who has led the Popular Front since 1993, says that he welcomes criticism from young people, but does not believe their objections accurately reflect reality. “The reason of our failure is not that we cannot use communication technologies or that our decisions are wrong,” Kerimli said.
He blamed “ government pressure, the non-democratic environment in the country and financial difficulties” for the party’s organizational weaknesses and lack of “opportunities.”
Both Musavat and the Popular Front have said that they may not run candidates in the 2013 elections if their demands for election code reforms are not met.But ultimately, some Azerbaijanis say, no viable alternatives for the two opposition parties may even exist.
Other active, opposition-inclined groups -- in particular, new youth organizations such as Nida or Positive Change, among others -- look on politics more as a “hobby,” commented Juvarli.
For Milli and his supporters, settling for another opposition loss at the polls is not good enough. Gambar and Kerimli should continue “their activities as experienced politicians, but not as party leaders,” he said. “They fought for democracy, but were not successful.”
Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist focusing on Azerbaijan.