Emboldened by certain international monitors’ biased assessments, and ignoring the more objective evaluations of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections, opposition leaders have launched street actions to press for the annulment of the results of the November 6 parliamentary vote and for holding new elections country-wide. The radical opposition Azadliq (Freedom) bloc is now mobilizing its supporters with imaginary claims to have won the elections.
Azadliq leaders had all along regarded these elections not as the culmination of a political process, but rather as an intermediate stage leading to physical confrontation, “color revolution,” and “regime change.” During the campaign, they declared that any outcome that would give the opposition less than 45 parliamentary seats (out of 125) would mean that the elections were “rigged.” That figure seemed designed as an opening gambit in bargaining with the authorities on the price of post-election tranquility. Dismissing all the pre-election opinion surveys that showed their low ratings, the radical opposition leaders had declared their complete faith in the election-day exit poll, commissioned and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Conducted by the American firm PA Consulting, the exit poll deeply disappointed the opposition by showing the same winners as the officially declared winners in 53 out of 65 electoral districts surveyed.
Stung, Azadliq leaders now variously claim that their bloc has won “two-thirds” (i.e., more than 80) of the parliament’s seats or that it carried “most of the 116 electoral districts” where the bloc competed. Leaders of the small, moderate opposition Yeni Siyasat (New Politics, YES) bloc, who had all along distanced themselves from Azadliq’s confrontational tactics, are now concerned that YES may end up marginalized, and they have aligned themselves with Azadliq in demanding the annulment and re-run of the elections.
Opposition rallies in Baku on November 9 and November 13 gathered an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 and 25,000 to 30,000 participants, respectively. Azadliq’s component parties – Musavat, Democratic, and Popular Front – and the radicalized YES leader Eldar Namazov are now calling for follow-up rallies and demonstrations country-wide, starting on November 18. The rallies’ resolutions called for non-stop protests until the elections’ results are cancelled. While the leaders’ appeals for “hundreds of thousands” to gather seem hyperbolic, it takes far fewer to initiate a spiral of confrontation.
The pro-opposition Makam (Momentum) student group has appealed to students at Baku State University and other colleges to boycott classes, and to faculty to go on strike, “until the falsified election results are annulled.”
Opposition activists seem to oscillate between demanding re-run elections countrywide and calling for “regime change.” Popular Front leader Ali Kerimli and Musavat firebrand Rauf Arifoglu are among the speakers who urged regime change at the Baku rallies. For his part, Musavat leader Isa Gambar seems to hold two irons in the fire, with one demonizing the authorities and with another holding out the possibility of a deal with them over parliamentary seats.
The opposition expects that Nardaran and nearby villages on the Apsheron peninsula would launch the protest movement outside Baku. Nardaran village is a unique Shiite fundamentalist stronghold in Azerbaijan. The nearby villages were a political base of Azerbaijan’s last Communist Party leader, the now Moscow-based Ayaz Mutalibov, who is one of the leaders of the YES bloc for reasons that remain obscure. This area with its peculiar social profile, is fertile ground for radical opposition activities.
Thus far, the opposition has observed the law and stopped short of provoking clashes with the police. Elements within the opposition threaten to turn the rallies into sit-ins and put up tents, which would be illegal and would provoke the police to respond with force. Opposition “strategists” have worked out a concept they call “flash-mobbing,” whereby mobile groups of demonstrators harass the police at various locations simultaneously, forcing it to leave some sites unprotected, until a larger opposition column suddenly seizes a site and erects a tent city. For now, however, opposition leaders are telling their followers to postpone sit-ins and tent-city tactics “until the right moment comes.”
The authorities are reacting in measured ways, avoiding any confrontation while signaling their readiness to uphold public order if necessary. President Ilham Aliyev declared in a televised interview, “Perhaps more than anyone else I want normal elections [because] democratic and fair elections will help me in my work as president” (ATV, November 14).
According to Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential office’s department for liaison with political parties and NGOs, the Central Election Commission (CEC) is examining possible vote-counting or tabulation violations in up to 20 electoral districts (out of 125). In at least six of those, the CEC has ordered recounts that seem set to give those seats to opposition candidates, and the Prosecutor-General’s Office has launched criminal proceedings against officials in those districts’ state administration and electoral commissions who were involved in those frauds. Hasanov is urging the opposition to appeal to Prosecutor’s Offices and the courts, not to rallies in the streets.
As in previous elections, tampering with the returns inflated the overall victory margin of the governing Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party and its allies, although that victory would in any case have been clear-cut. This time around, however, violations were scrutinized by some 1,600 international monitors, some 17,000 local monitors, and nearly 1,700 losing candidates (versus 125 declared winners), all of which produced a deluge of complaints. And, in sharp contrast to past elections, this electoral campaign was wide open, with unprecedented strides toward freer and fairer elections.
The irreconcilable opposition recognizes none of this progress.
(ANS TV, Trend, Turan, November 12-14; see EDM, October 27, 28, November 1, 3, 4, 8, 10)