Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 170

As Azerbaijan’s November 6 parliamentary elections draw closer, opposition parties are becoming more active.

On Saturday September 10 the opposition bloc Azadliq (Freedom), a coalition of three major parties in Azerbaijan — Musavat, Popular Front, and Democratic Party – held yet another rally in Baku where it managed to assemble between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Many of the participants wore orange T-shirts and carried orange flags, alluding to Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. This was the first demonstration organized by the Azadliq opposition bloc since the official start of the election campaign last week.

Demonstrators chanted slogans such as “Free Elections!” “Step Down!” and “Freedom,” while they called on the government to ensure a free and democratic vote.

The opposition press portrayed Saturday’s rally as a show of unity among opposition movements in the country. Qabil Huseyinli, a member of the demonstration committee for the Musavat Party, said, “The Azadliq Bloc has managed to get the support of the [Azerbaijani] nation.” That is why, he added, “the Saturday demonstration should be considered as a success.” The Azadliq Bloc is planning to hold another rally on September 25.

In the meantime, the local office of OSCE convened a round-table discussion between the ruling and opposition parties at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Baku on Monday, September 12. In addition to political parties, the participants included officials from regional governments and police agencies.

Ambassador Maurizio Pavesi, head of the OSCE Office in Baku, expressed his hope for a continued dialogue between pro-government and opposition political parties in the country and advised, “The dialogue should not be interrupted, as it has a great importance for the development of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan.”

Both the government and opposition representatives seemed pleased with the discussions. As one delegate from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party observed, “Such events have a positive impact on the development of public dialogue and they should continue.” The Chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Ali Kerimli, however, drew attention to the topic of free assembly and reported, “All participants in the seminar, including the representatives of the government, agreed on the inadmissibility of the use of force against demonstrators by law-enforcement agencies.”

During the discussion, the leaders of the opposition parties called for expanding the number of sanctioned meeting places in Baku where people can rally without prior permission from the government. At the moment, the opposition can mobilize demonstrators only around the “January 20th” metro station and “Galebe” (Victory) Square. Officials from the ruling party responded by saying that the local administration of the city has already allocated areas in 11 districts of the city, which would be made public soon.

The opposition parties have also started to avail themselves of Azerbaijani public television, which began broadcasting last month. This week, three prominent members of the Azadliq Bloc, Isa Gambar, Ali Kerimli and Sardar Jalaloglu, spoke on public TV and AzTV1 and shared their political agendas with the Azerbaijani electorate.

Resul Guliyev, the exiled leader of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, which is also a member of the Azadliq Bloc, is running for parliament in absentia from the United Kingdom. He recently announced his intention to return home, despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He is still wanted on embezzlement charges involving more than $100 million of state funds while he was director of the state oil plant in the 1990s.

Although the Azadliq Bloc is both the main opposition alliance in Azerbaijan and the most politically active group, there are some 40 other parties and political blocs that will participate in the elections. Statistically, Azadliq is the largest bloc with 115 candidates. However, its candidate list makes up less than 7% percent of the entire candidate pool. Other major political forces include the pro-government YAP Bloc (101 candidates and 4.9% of the total), “YeS” Bloc (69, 3.35%), Liberal Party (67, 3.25%), Alliance in the Name of Azerbaijan (50, 2.42%), Democratic Azerbaijan Bloc (35, 1.7%), and “Umid” Party (31, 1.5%).

According to recent data from the Central Election Committee, 431 of the 2,062 registered candidates are affiliated with the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) and 138 are from the three member parties of the Azadliq Bloc. Moreover, only 84 of the YAP candidates are current MPs. Therefore some one-third of the current parliament will vacate their seats – a development welcomed by many in Azerbaijan.

Most candidates in November will run independently. In addition to 159 candidates who did not specify their party affiliation, 973 (almost 50% of all registered candidates) are independent. But the aggregate number of candidates (including those who have party affiliations) that will run individually is 1,402 (68%).

The density of the candidates per district is also striking. The average number of voters per district in and around Baku (31 districts) is 37,050 with an average of 25 candidates per district. The highest candidate density is in the electoral district #9 of Binegedi region of Baku, where 37 candidates will compete for a single seat in a 125-seat parliament.

From the pre-election situation in the streets of Baku and the number of interested candidates who want to become MPs, the upcoming parliamentary race promises to be very tense.

So far President Ilham Aliev has encouraged political pluralism and seems satisfied with the number of candidates. He understands that a fair election in Azerbaijan is not only important for the image of the country, but also for the legitimacy of its government and its relations with the West.

If the government succeeds in conducting a free and democratic election this November, Azerbaijan will not only have its most democratic parliamentary elections in the last decade, but also a parliament that can boast popular legitimacy and help to bring about long-awaited reforms.

(Zerkalo, Echo, Azadliq, Baku Today, Yeni Musavat, September 10-13)