Azerbaijan's political opposition could potentially mount a serious threat to the ruling party's grip on power by uniting behind a single presidential candidate, some political analysts maintain. However, philosophical differences and personal rivalries continue to hamper effective cooperation among the opposition as the October 15 vote approaches.
A late August opposition summit in London failed to produce agreement on a unified candidate. Only one of the summit participants -- Ali Karimli, the leader of the reform wing of the Popular Front -- has expressed a willingness to withdraw from the presidential race in favor of a single opposition candidate. Two other leading opposition figures Isa Gambar of the Musavat Party and Etibar Mamedov of the National Independence Party reportedly remain interested in continuing their candidacies. A fourth participant at the London summit Rasul Guliyev, leader of the Democratic Party has been barred from running in the October 15 election.
Despite the lack of agreement on a single candidate, opposition leaders pledged to increase cooperation. They established a so-called Union for Democratic Stability, which will seek to promote fair elections. In the event that an opposition candidate wins, members of the stability union will push for greater democratization through constitutional reform. The opposition leaders also agreed that if one of the three presidential hopefuls Karimli, Gambar or Mamedov qualifies for a second round of voting, then the others will support that candidate.
Mamedov described the summit as a success. "People expected us to achieve as much as possible, and we have taken important steps towards that," the Turan news agency quoted Mamedov as saying. "We have not closed the book on negotiations [over a unified candidate]."
"We were close to agreement," Mamedov continued, referring to the London discussions. He remained confident that ultimately the opposition would opt for the "ideal version and go into the elections with a unified candidate."
Isa Gambar told EurasiaNet that he too was hopeful that "we can determine a unified candidate that could lead us to victory." At the same time, Gambar said it would not be "a tragedy" if the opposition could not agree.
Polls, which have proven unreliable indicators of voting patterns in the former Soviet Union, show that Gambar is the most popular opposition candidate. Some election observers believe that in a fair vote he could defeat the ruling party candidate, Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev. Others feel that opposition unity would considerably enhance Gambar's chances.
According to some reports, Karimli would support Gambar as the unified candidate, but Mamedov is reluctant to do so. Gambar, likewise, supposedly opposes Mamedov's nomination as the unified candidate. Guliyev's Democratic Party has yet to define its position.
Many observers said that, under present circumstances, Ilham Aliyev is expected to succeed his ailing father, Heidar, as president. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Even if the opposition manages to present a united front in the election, leading Azerbaijani human rights advocates, including Eldar Ismailov, say the ruling party is prepared to resort to ballot-stuffing in order to ensure Aliyev's victory. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Opposition supporters have complained about government harassment since the presidential campaign formally began on August 16. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For example, police arrested four Gambar supporters August 30 as they were conducting campaign-related activities in a camp housing persons displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. Loyalists of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party have also called for disciplinary action to be taken against Karimli and Mamedov for allegedly insulting the honor of Heidar Aliyev and for supposedly calling for popular protests against the government.
Karimli's Popular Front Party also is blaming the government for a fight that disrupted a televised presidential debate on September 6. The fight involved a top Popular Front official, Fuad Mustafayev, and Hafiz Haciyev, the Modern Musavat Party's presidential candidate. The two engaged in name calling before coming to blows towards the end of the debate over Karabakh policy.
Law-enforcement authorities have initiated criminal proceedings against Mustafayev for his role in the fight. Haciyev, whose party has pro-government leanings, has not faced criminal charges. A Popular Front statement demanded that the criminal case against Mustafayev be dropped. "This is another provocation by authorities against the opposition," the statement said.
Even with the state apparatus seeming to work for Aliyev's reelection, the ruling party candidate seems to be taking nothing for granted. In a September 3 television address, Ilham Aliyev resorted to scare tactics in an effort to bolster his electoral support. He touted his father Heidar Aliyev as being responsible for the existing stability in Azerbaijan today, and said he would maintain the current political course. He attacked Karimli as being "weak-willed," and Mamedov for exhibiting "political faithlessness." Aliyev also ridiculed Gambar as "an unsuccessful post graduate student who could not write his thesis in 11 years."
Ilham Aliyev went on to point out that Gambar and Karimli held important political posts during the two years that the Popular Front held power 1992-93. It was under the Popular Front's leadership that Azerbaijan suffered a military collapse during the Karabakh war that prompted broader domestic tumult, paving the way for Heidar Aliyev's return to power. Ilham Aliyev implied that chaotic times would return if an opposition candidate won the upcoming election.
"These people, who disgraced, embezzled and ruined Azerbaijan ... once again want to come to power," Aliyev said. "One could not expect any positive results from such officials. ... There is no alternative to Heidar Aliyev's policies, which brought stability and development so vital to Azerbaijan."
Nailia Sohbetqizi and Konul Khalilova are freelance journalists based in Baku.