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."
Alisov, 30, makes no secret of his connection to the U.S. Embassy, where he worked as a political adviser. And though he looks older than his age and dresses in conservative suits, he does his best to make a virtue of his youth in a society that prizes experience and connections in its political leaders.
At the fundraiser, several voters said they admired his youthfulness and energy, but they were reluctant to pledge support. Alisov said that, after years of disappointment, they were careful in making promises.
"People don't trust anymore," he said.
Moving Forward, and Back
Like other younger, reform-minded candidates, Alisov is working to adopt election techniques common outside Azerbaijan. He publishes a newsletter with his biography and campaign positions, but opens its pages to anyone who wants to send in photographs, family news or poetry. He campaigns at funerals and weddings, two of the remaining community events that bring together his widely dispersed voters.
He travels with three cell phones and gives out one of his numbers, promising to help voters with their problems. In one campaign meeting, he told a small crowd of men not to give their identity cards to anyone in the days before the election. Collecting these cards, which are necessary to vote, he explained, is a common technique by local authorities to control the results.
Although the government opened up the registration process, it has also told candidates to post their campaign materials only on officially sanctioned poster boards. With dozens of candidates running in some districts, there's not room for everyone's literature. And with little access to television or radio, independent candidates must have name and face recognition.
"That's absolutely a limitation of free speech," Ayten Shirinova, 27, another independent candidate, said of the government's rule on posting. She is printing her campaign literature on long rectangular cards, designed to hang from doorknobs like the "do not disturb" signs in hotels. In a part of the city where people are rarely home during the day, and often unwilling to open their doors, she said these cards were her best chance to spread her message.
Like Alisov, Vugar Mammadov collected his registration signatures personally, part of a strategy the U.S.-educated candidate is using to meet and interact with voters. He said he had several invitations to join established political parties but refused them. He too prefers the independent label.
"People expect the Soviet-style campaign," he said. "You have a poster with your passport photo. You send the right people flowers. You meet a few people."
Mammadov is trying to chart his own course. His printed material looks different from the usual posters and pocket calendars that almost every candidate distributes, and he is trying to use focus groups to create a platform, rather than announcing it from the start.
Like Alisov, other candidates are focusing on anger as a powerful political force. One Saturday morning recently, voters in candidate Ilgar Mamadov's district gathered spontaneously to vent their anger about plans to build two 16-story apartment buildings in the courtyard of their apartment complex.
They had planned to use the same space for a community center but discovered that a building permit had been issued to a local entrepreneur.
When about 100 men and women gathered in the courtyard, police arrived. Mamadov intervened and helped secure the voters a rare meeting with city officials. The permit was suspended for 30 days.
"It's a partial victory," said Mamadov, who is also running as an independent. But he also said the compromise will probably last only until the elections are over.
Few candidates encounter the level of despair and anger that Alisov hears on a daily basis from refugee voters. He said it was exhausting to experience it, but necessary.
"It's not so important to win as it is to show that the new generation can do something," he said. He fears a creeping apathy and cynicism among his voters that will spread to all politicians, even those attempting to reform the system.
Before leaving for two more late meetings with refugees in Sumgayit, Alisov listened to his campaign staffers. One told him that his posters were being torn down, at least 10 or 15 to date. He told them to hang them higher, above the reach of children. He made plans to visit a high school because, he said, teachers have sway with voters. He made plans for yet another wedding visit.
Then he went out again to meet voters. They told him that it had been years since they had seen their homes in the Armenian-occupied zone, and years since they had seen their representative in parliament. "He came and promised he would solve our problems," said one man. "But he does nothing."
Alisov waited for things to calm down before he began his campaign pitch.
"I'm sorry," he began, quietly. "Please don't think that I'm trying to teach you. I am a refugee myself." He went on to tell them that the United States won't come to fix their problems, that Azerbaijan must work to build support for its position in Europe, and that the only way out of their poverty is education.
He promised little and, in the end, he left with pledges of support. But later he said that these are often just a form of politeness among people who are desperate for anyone to listen to them.