Independent Candidates Court Anger in Azerbaijan Campaign

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- For Dadas Alisov, a candidate in Azerbaijan's upcoming parliamentary elections, most voter meetings begin with several tense minutes of pure rage. He listens as old men hammer him with questions about their future and whether they will ever see their homes again.

Alisov, left a refugee by his country's war with Armenia, hopes to represent other refugees, a diaspora of the desperately poor and dispossessed spread throughout Azerbaijan. More than a decade has passed since their communities in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh were seized by Armenian soldiers, and they are so hungry for attention that they treat Alisov as if he already represents the government that they declare neglects them.

Azerbaijan lost about 16 percent of its territory to Armenia in the war, one of multiple conflicts that erupted within the borders of the old Soviet Union with the erosion of Moscow's authority. The half-million people who remain refugees in Azerbaijan are unable to return home and often unable to begin new lives in resettlement areas.

"The elevators don't work, the roofs leak," said Alishan Aliev, who lives in a Soviet-era housing block in Sumgayit, a polluted former chemical industrial center north of Baku, the capital. The sun was setting when he met with Alisov in a trash-strewn courtyard. "For 13 years the rain leaks in on us. We don't need elevators. But we need a roof."

This anger is the wildcard in the Nov. 6 elections. While the authoritarian government of President Ilham Aliyev and an organized opposition fight for power in the country's capital, independent and mostly young candidates such as Alisov are trying to bypass these old political feuds.

They go where the complaints are, listen and try to gain traction in the campaign with something that is a rare commodity in this land of corruption: attention to real problems. They are testing electoral techniques they learned in the United States and Europe, where many of them studied.

Independent candidates flooded into the parliamentary contest after Aliyev, under international pressure, issued a resolution on May 11 reforming the electoral process. Although some are allied with the ruling party or have opposition affiliations, many of them want no part of the animosity between Aliyev's government and its long-standing critics.

"The opposition is interested in having chaos in everything," Alisov said. "I am personally against the idea of revolution because the question is, who is going to do it, and who will get the benefit?"

Opposition leaders such as Isa Gambar, who heads the Musavat party, are scornful of this approach. They argue that in an authoritarian country, anyone who supports free and fair elections is by definition in the opposition. No matter what label they choose, opposing Aliyev's handpicked candidates means fighting the same battle against vote-rigging, ballot-stuffing and relentless government propaganda.

Alisov makes do on his own. He travels the country in a Lada, a tiny Russian-built car, driven by a friend. He is without the larger resources of the established opposition parties, including the access they have gained to state television, part of a package of concessions the Aliyev government made under international pressure. Following a widely criticized 2003 election, in which Aliyev succeeded his late father as president, Azerbaijan has been under increasing scrutiny for electoral fraud and human rights abuses.

On Sept. 10, as the organized opposition was holding a rally, Alisov held what he said was Azerbaijan's first political fundraiser. For about $1,000, he rented a restaurant in Baku, and after inviting his friends, who contributed, and his impoverished constituents, who didn't, he came out about $1,000 ahead. As he and his supporters gave speeches, elderly men in old suits and carefully brushed hats sat at tables, pecked at hors d'oeuvres and talked of Nagorno-Karabakh and the candidate.

"Dadas is very young," observed Maharram Mahi, 81, a schoolteacher from one of the occupied districts. "I have read his bio. He is educated. He is a lawyer. He speaks English."

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