More than 38,000 candidates are expected to contest 22,000 seats in Azerbaijan’s December 17 municipal elections. Once again, the opposition has decided to boycott the vote. The independent daily Zerkalo reported that several opposition parties, including the Popular Front, Musavat and its allied parties in the “Our Azerbaijan” political bloc, and Umid, are joining the boycott (Zerkalo, December 4). The Democratic Party is also considering refusing to participate. “From all over the country we have been receiving complaints that our candidates are not being registered,” said Popular Front secretary Hasan Karimov. “Their meetings with voters are not allowed and any kind of electoral campaigning is prohibited. So, under these conditions we decided that the boycott is the only option left for us” (ANS TV, December 2). The opposition daily Yeni Musavat reported that Musavat had already started removing the names of its candidates from the ballot papers (Yeni Musavat, December 3).
The opposition’s decision surprised few Azerbaijan-watchers. Threats of a boycott have been in the air for a long time. Isa Gambar, chairman of Musavat, said that the boycott was triggered by the flawed election code, the authorities’ control over the election commissions, and the government’s refusal to consider OSCE recommendations to improve the electoral process (Zerkalo, December 4).
According to a Central Election Commission press release, 38,866 candidates have registered, but more than 22,000 of them are members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP). Thirty other parties have managed to register only 2,347 candidates. The opposition has also complained that no street rallies have been allowed since the presidential elections in October 2003, thus violating freedom of assembly in the country. The Popular Front has been the only party to organize protests in front of the Baku mayor’s office, demanding permission to hold street demonstrations. All of the requests have been turned down. “The ban on street rallies does not allow us to campaign during the municipal elections,” complained Nizami Guliyev, a parliamentary deputy from the Popular Front during the latest protest on December 2. Minutes later, he was shoved and detained by policemen (“Seda”, Lider TV, December 2-3).
Government officials, meanwhile, have refuted all the accusations. The chairman of the central election commission, Mazahir Panahov, claimed that only two percent of nominees have been refused registration. “If an opposition party does not have a social support base, they seek excuses to stay away from the elections, so that they do not get embarrassed,” Panahov concluded (ATV, December 1). Opposition parties indeed find it difficult to nominate candidates for all municipal seats, as the support base for the opposition parties in the country significantly decreased after their defeat in the 2003 presidential elections.
On October 31, the chief of Presidential Administration, Ramiz Mehtiyev, held a press conference to celebrate the first year of Ilham Aliev’s presidency. When asked, he called the boycott threats “a political game.” Ali Hasanov, chief of the Presidential Administration’s political department assured voters that the elections would be free and fair.
Further dividing the anti-government forces, not every opposition party has supported the boycott strategy. The independent daily Echo reported on December 3 that the National Independence Party and the Yurddash (Compatriot) Party had condemned the decision and informed the public that they would participate in the elections. Etibar Mammadov, chairman of the National Independence Party, said in a December 3 press conference that the boycott strategy would not be “effective.” He added that the Western world does not accept this strategy with an appropriate understanding of the local situation (Zerkalo, December 4).
Public interest in this year’s municipal elections is generally very low. Analysts explain this by pointing out the limited role of the municipalities in the day-to-day lives of the people. “The majority of residents of our village still look up the Executive Committee’s office for solutions, not to the municipalities,” Natig Jafarov, from the village of Girdani, Lenkaran region, told Jamestown.
The boycott may have been triggered by ongoing events in Ukraine. Azerbaijani opposition members believe democracy is again on the rise in the post-Soviet region given last year’s Rose Revolution in Georgia and now the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Musavat chairman Gambar even traveled to Ukraine to support opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko in his presidential challenge. Now Azerbaijan’s opposition leaders see no reason to settle for elections that are not free and not fair.