The absence of clear and reliable information about President Haidar Aliev’s medical condition and his avoidance of the limelight have triggered a fresh round of political speculation in Baku. Scenarios for the near term no longer assume a presidential vacancy and the necessary election of a new president. Current speculation envisions instead a medium-term transition process in which a physically weakened Aliev would still discharge at least some of his presidential duties, delegate others and use his clout in order to influence, perhaps decisively, the selection of a successor.
Such expectations and forecasts–based as they are on the assumption that Haidar will be around for some time to come–seem to have strengthened cohesion among the groups which make up the government camp while feeding the competition among opposition parties. A three-cornered rivalry seems to be intensifying among the Popular Front of former President Abulfaz Elchibey, the Musavat Party of Isa Gambar and the National Independence Party of Etibar Mamedov (the distant runner-up to Aliev in last year’s presidential election). In the highly personalized world of Azerbaijani politics, these three leaders entertain mutually exclusive presidential ambitions–a situation which has prevented the opposition from joining forces despite the common goal of unseating Aliev. While negotiating among themselves to both coordinate actions and reconcile their competing claims to leadership of the opposition, these three parties and their leaders suspect one another of seeking separate deals with the authorities. The scenarios envision a power-sharing arrangement by sections of the ruling establishment with one of the main opposition parties. The Popular Front and the National Independence Party are usually being mentioned as primary candidates for such a role. The hypothetical prospect of powersharing in turn offers the main opposition parties an incentive to behave responsibly and to restrain the radical and impatient elements within their ranks (Turan, Azadlyg, Yeni Musavat, June 9, 10).
A moribund Aliev or a healthy Aliev clearly able to serve out the remaining four-and-a-half years of his term would render these speculations moot. The current situation, however, increases the uncertainty over the medium-term prospects and, consequently, the distrust among opposition parties. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s foreign partners–not to mention many ordinary Azerbaijanis–may have observed with some relief that the country has remained stable and the government functional during Aliev’s long absence, even if a number of problems were left unattended pending his return. The main conclusion to be drawn at this point suggests–contrary to a hitherto prevailing view–that stability in Azerbaijan has become less dependent upon the person and presence of Aliev, one of whose lasting achievements has been to restore and consolidate that stability.
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