After weeks of mutual accusations and growing distrust, the founding members of Azerbaijan’s largest opposition coalition Azadliq (Freedom) — Musavat, Popular Front and the Democratic Party — have filed for divorce. On February 9 Musavat officially announced its withdrawal from the bloc, due “to the campaign of ‘blackmail and attack’ being carried out by the Democratic and Popular Front parties, and mass media sources close to these parties” (Turan News Agency, February 9).
The Azadliq election bloc was created in March 2005 by these three largest opposition parties with the goal of forming a united list of candidates for the parliamentary elections. This was the first broad alliance of major opposition parties in the history of the country, and many politicians considered transforming the bloc into a large unified opposition party after the elections. Yet, a difference of opinions over tactics has led to its collapse.
The disagreement between the partners started right after the November 6, 2005, parliamentary elections, with Popular Front and Democratic Party leaders urging more radical methods to protest election fraud, such as street protests, while Musavat opposed these ideas. On November 26, the lack of coordination and agreement among the three parties led to a situation whereby the Popular Front and Democrats urged their members and supporters to stage a sit-in after a protest rally, while Musavat leaders urged its supporters to go home. Subsequently, police brutally broke up the sit-in. Musavat Deputy Chairman Sulheddin Akber accused Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli of “taking decisions that harmed the opposition” (Day.az News Site, December 4).
Since then, the disagreements among the parties have increased daily, with the Popular Front and the Democrats unhappy about Musavat’s growing inclination to take their seats in the current parliament and participate in the repeat elections for ten seats in May. The Popular Front and the Democrats consider the parliament to be “illegitimate” and urge members to boycott both parliament and the repeat elections in an attempt to gain international sympathy. Musavat, the largest opposition party in parliament at five seats, faced internal pressure from some of its high-ranking operatives to attend parliamentary sessions and stop radicalism. Some opposition members believe that ten years of radical struggle and boycott have failed to produce results, and that the focus of future engagement with the ruling party should shift towards issue-based discussions and debates rather than calls for revolution.
“Both attending parliament and not attending it are harmful for us,” Vurgun Eyyub, first deputy chairman of Musavat, said in an interview with ATV on February 1. “But we must choose the lesser of the two harms, and that is attending the sessions of the parliament and using the opportunities to criticize the government.” Musavat chairman Isa Gambar gave a similar explanation to ANS TV on February 6, saying, “We still consider the parliament as illegitimate and our participation in it does not mean that we recognize the elections as valid. But we also want to use parliament’s platform to address some problems facing the country.”
Musavat’s decision to attend the parliament was formalized at the party’s national congress on February 5. The Popular Front, Democrats, and Liberals immediately labeled the decision as “treason” and threaten to expel Musavat from the Azadliq bloc. “ADP has decided to continue its activity in Azadliq without Musavat,” said Nureddin Ismaylov, press officer of the Democratic party (Day.az News Site, February 8). Musavat replied that the party had “worked hard to maintain the stability within the bloc” (APA News Agency, February 9).
To Azerbaijan watchers this situation might give the false impression that Musavat is becoming more participatory and less radical and the Popular Front, together with the Democrats, remains committed to the street struggle. Yet, a closer analysis of the political situation of Azerbaijan shows that the growing disagreements between Musavat and its partners are not the result of differences of opinions over tactics, but the political ambitions of the party leaders.
Paradoxically, following the 2000 parliamentary elections, it was the Popular Front that decided to participate in the work of the parliament with its five newly elected deputies, while Musavat boycotted the legislature, saying that the elections were fraudulent. Now the two parties have reversed their roles.
By deciding to boycott the parliament, the Popular Front and its leader, Ali Kerimli, are aiming to win the protest vote and a reputation as the “uncompromising fighter for democracy.” This, in turn, is a strategy aimed at the 2008 presidential elections. Musavat chair Isa Gambar used the same strategy in 2000 with an eye toward becoming the unified opposition leader in the 2003 presidential elections. After losing both the 2003 presidential elections and the 2005 parliamentary elections, Musavat no longer sees the need to maintain a radical stance and prefers to become a more “issue-based party.” But with Ali Kerimli, who has never participated in presidential elections, the boycott strategy still seems very appealing. But while an opposition leader can win the status of “unified opposition leader” by targeting the protest vote, that strategy will not win a general election.