Opposition in Azerbaijan still unsure if it will contest presidential elections in 2013.

With recent announcements by the ruling party in Azerbaijan that incumbent President and party chairman, Ilham Aliyev will be nominated for a third term as the party’s presidential candidate, the opposition in the country has decided to ramp up its public activities this autumn.

The Public Chamber (PC), a coalition of prominent opposition parties who found themselves without a single seat following the 2010 parliamentary elections, declared on 22 July that it would launch a new wave of protests in the coming months to demand the government establish the necessary conditions for free and fair presidential elections in 2013. PC activities will be centred on four main goals: the release of political prisoners by Azerbaijani authorities, a guarantee of freedom of assembly, respect for freedom of speech and the media, as well as the implementation of pressing amendments to the Electoral Code.

With respect to the first, the Public Chamber this week made public appeals to both Amnesty International and Christoph Strässer, special rapporteur for political prisoners in Azerbaijan of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PAC E). The PC asked both bodies to continue their lobbying efforts for the release of political prisoners in the country, a task made all the more difficult as the Government does not acknowledge the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Strässer, who attempted to visit the country last summer, has been denied a visa to Azerbaijan since his appointment. According to the Press Service of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, the visa was rejected last summer as “there is no such criterion as a political prisoner [in Azerbaijan]. PAC E is trying to apply this definition with regard to Azerbaijan. [Strässer’s] visit was deemed meaningless because of its purpose. We think defining his mandate in those terms is [an attempt to] segregate Azerbaijan.” More recently, Ali Ahmadov, Executive Secretary for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YA P), while announcing his party’s intention to nominate Aliyev to a third term as candidate for the presidency reiterated the absence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan. In the run up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Azerbaijan several political prisoners were released, including social media activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. According to the Public Chamber, however, two prisoners of conscience, recognised by Amnesty International remain behind bars, Shahin Hasanli, member of the Supreme Board of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and Vidadi Isgandarli. The opposition has appealed to the international community to intensify efforts for their release as well as the release of another 70 individuals they say are also imprisoned for their political views.

Concerning the amendments to the Electoral Code, the PC held a roundtable meeting in June in which they established a working group to develop a proposal in line with the recommended amendments suggested by the Venice Commission following the 2010 Parliamentary elections. In particular the working group is demanding equal representation of political parties in the composition of the Central Elections Commission, equal and fair access in the candidate registration process and changes to the appeals and complaints mechanism to ensure due process for all cases. Should the amendments not go through, the opposition has threatened to boycott the political process by not fielding a candidate for the 2013 presidential elections – a move that has not gone without precedent, although perhaps without success.

In the 2008 Presidential elections the most prominent opposition leaders refused to participate in the elections citing the impossibility of winning given the control the ruling party possessed over the process. However foreign diplomats in Baku were at the time critical of the opposition stance, arguing that opposition parties should take every opportunity available to push forward their views. In 2003 the main opposition candidate was Isa Gambar the leader of Musavat Party. His supporters put up a spirited performance in the election and refused to accept the result of the election which marked the first election victory for Ilham Aliev.

This story was prepared  for CEW by Karina Gould with additional reporting from RFE/RL, the Azerbaijani press and social media.