On November 5 Azerbaijan will hold the third multiparty legislative election in its history. At stake are 100 seats in single-mandate districts and twenty-five seats to be distributed among party slates countrywide according to the proportional system. The governing Yeni [New] Azerbaijan Party (YAP) looks set to retain a comfortable majority in the new Milli Majlis, though not as lopsided a majority as it enjoyed in the 1996-2000 legislature. The administrative apparatus and electoral commissions had unnecessarily inflated the victory margins of the YAP in the 1996 parliamentary elections and of President Haidar Aliev in the 1998 presidential election. Even if the fraud did not substantially influence the outcome of those elections, it affected Azerbaijan’s international image and strengthened the radical, confrontation-prone elements in the opposition parties.
As these elections drew closer, Aliev redoubled his warnings–most tellingly to the Internal Affairs Ministry–against tampering with the electoral process. Yet even such warnings may not fully overcome the official culture of excess of zeal and preemptive sycophancy, spawned by both the Oriental and the Soviet traditions.
The theme of official corruption has pervaded this campaign, often replacing substantive policy proposals in the parties’ electoral message. Recent Turkish and Western criticism of corruption has added to the credibility of the opposition’s political case. Yet the opposition and some in the West target corruption primarily as a government problem, without fully addressing its deep societal and cultural roots.
The YAP is currently undergoing a generational change, managed from the top and consistent with loyalty to the president. YAP deputies in the new parliament will on the whole be younger, better educated and more modern in outlook, compared to those in the outgoing Milli Majlis. The party is fielding 140 candidates in ninety-nine single-mandate districts. That means that some of those races are pitting old guard against young-guard elements within YAP.
Ilham Aliev, the president’s son and first deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company (SOCAR), heads the YAP’s list of twenty-five candidates in the proportional contest. Many speculate that Ilham has been slated for the post of chairman of the new parliament in order to succeed his father as president, if the 77-year-old Haidar Aliev is unable to complete his five-year term. Should the head of state be physically incapacitated or die in office, the constitution provides that the parliamentary chairman becomes acting head of state and calls new elections. The speculative scenario has it that Ilham would in that case use his post in order to run for president and guarantee his victory.
The two Alievs publicly dismiss that scenario, however. The president sounds fully confident that he can serve out his term. Ilham says that he intends to stay on at SOCAR and see the Caspian oil projects through the stage of full implementation. That would, however, imply renouncing the deputy’s mandate. Existing legislation does not allow parliamentary deputies to hold posts in the executive or judicial branches of government, nor remunerated posts in any field other than the arts and sciences.
Against a backdrop of dismal social conditions, the YAP can nevertheless point to some achievements of the Aliev presidency and promise early improvements. YAP’s electoral message dwells on the stabilization of the internal situation after the violent turmoil of 1992-95, the Western investments that followed and the prospect of substantial oil revenues to alleviate poverty. It suggests to voters that Azerbaijan’s situation compares favorably to that of neighboring Armenia and Georgia. And it points to the opposition’s record of failure while in power and its inability to offer real policy alternatives today. To a significant extent, YAP’s strength rests on deference toward the person of Haidar Aliev among tradition-bound popular strata, as was demonstrated on the president’s return to the country last year following surgery in the United States.
The opposition includes three or four parties with distinct profiles and strong leaders, along with a multitude of miniparties, most of them engaged in constant infighting over the pecking order within the opposition ranks. Several opposition leaders have longstanding presidential aspirations–a factor which causes their parties to glance over the shoulder at one another with no less suspicion than that which they reserve for their common rival Aliev. The fragmentation and rivalries have intensified in the lead-up to these elections.
The once-governing Popular Front, largest among the opposition parties, has officially consummated a split which had developed de facto long ago. When the party’s chairman and former president of the country (1992-93), Abulfaz Elchibey, died of cancer in August of this year, the last unifying factor disappeared. Two rival wings expelled each other from the Popular Front and held separate congresses in October, establishing two mutually hostile parties.
The Reformers’ wing, also known as Yurd [Home], is led by the Popular Front’s long-serving First Vice Chairman Ali Kerimov. It has been legally registered as the Front’s legal successor to run in these elections. Its leaders are younger, more liberal and less nationalistic than their rivals. They seem to be cautiously inching toward a possible power-sharing deal with the government.
The Popular Front’s “Traditionalist” or “Classical” wing was set up by four vice chairmen of the Front in opposition to Kerimov’s wing, and claiming exclusive title to Elchibey’s legacy. Led by Mirmahmud Fattaev, this party is more closely associated with the generation of militants from the 1989-91 national movement and the 1992-93 period of the Front’s rule. It takes an uncompromising stand against the government and accuses the rival wing of collusion with the latter. This part of the Front has made an alliance with the Musavat Party in these elections.
Musavat, an almost purely nationalist party, was a partner of the Popular Front in the 1992-93 parliament and government. The party’s veteran leader, Isa Gambar, was the chairman of that parliament. Musavat’s relations with the Popular Front have experienced many ups and downs from 1993 to date. Elchibey’s and Gambar’s overlapping presidential aspirations colored the relations between their parties. Some months before his death, Elchibey moved toward a renewed alliance with Gambar’s party. The Front’s “Classical” wing abides by the late leader’s decision.
The split within the Front and the alliance of part of the Front with Musavat has produced a split in the Democratic Congress, an umbrella grouping of opposition parties. Four of these parties support the Musavat-“Classical” Front alliance. Another four parties of the Democratic Congress support the “Reformers'” Popular Front. The two camps now hold separate, rival meetings. Outside the Democratic Congress, eight more opposition parties, mostly nationalist ones, support the partnership of Musavat and the “Classical” Front.
Musavat is the obvious beneficiary of these realignments within the opposition. It stands to gain the electorate of most opposition parties as well as that of part of the Popular Front. Whatever the final outcome of these elections, Musavat has won the contest for primacy within the opposition’s ranks. It is now generally referred to as “the leading opposition party.” Gambar hopes to become the recognized leader of the opposition in the new Milli Majlis.
Most opposition parties shun Etibar Mamedov’s National Independence Party. Mamedov is a capable and forceful leader with his own presidential ambitions. The opposition tens to resent him for having run in the 1998 presidential election in spite of the Popular Front, Musavat and other parties’ firm decision to boycott that election (Survey based on the Azerbaijani media’s coverage of the electoral campaign during September and October and the party leaders’ televised campaign statements through November 1).
1″The emptiness of the statement was exemplified not only by Putin’s rejection, mentioned already, of talks with the Chechen leadership, but also by the fact that Moscow has pledged to European governments for a year now that it would seek a political settlement of the conflict.”
2″‘We speak only in the language of the law,’ Troshin said, calling Berezovsky’s accusation ‘predictable’ and ‘the usual defensive reaction among this category of people.'”
3″Putin ‘advocates a strong state and market economy, but his conflicts with regional governors and the oligarchs, as well as the ongoing war in Chechnya, continue to undermine Russia’s political stability.'”
4″Against a backdrop of dismal social conditions, the YAP can nevertheless point to some achievements of the Aliev presidency and promise early improvements.”
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