By Leila Amirova
Special from Institute for
War and Peace Reporting
When Isa Gambar, Azerbaijan's leading opposition
candidate, came to the town of Beilagan recently,
he saw walls adorned with dozens of posters of
President Heidar Aliev and his son Ilham. There
were only three Gambar posters to be seen, all
of them torn.
Gambar faces an uphill struggle to defeat the
official candidate in the October 15 presidential
The senior Aliev, who is in the United States
for medical attention, withdrew from the race
last week in favour of Ilham, leaving his son
as the favorite in the race to be the next leader
Gambar knows that, despite a concerted campaign
against him, this year is the opposition's best
chance in a decade to galvanize voters disappointed
by the Aliev regime.
Beilagan, a poor town, just 16 km from the ceasefire
line with the Armenian forces near Nagorno Karabakh,
would seem to be ideal territory for Gambar. Around
half of the population of 90,000 are impoverished
refugees from the Karabakh war and Gambar himself
comes from the nearby region of Fizuli.
The residents of the town were talking animatedly
on the streets waiting for Gambar to arrive, when
a group of foreign cars drove through. The police
saluted, unaware that they actually contained
members of the opposition. When Gambar arrived
at the stadium, a crowd of one thousand people
was waiting for him.
Those attending the rally said there would have
been more people but the local authorities had
tried to stop them coming. The low turnout, however,
was also a sign of how many ordinary people are
fed up with politics and most rallies attract
only hard-core party supporters.
Those who did turn out were pleased with what
they heard. As Gambar promised the refugees he
would ensure their return to the occupied territories
and that the Armenian aggressors would be punished.
A smartly-dressed sixty-year-old man could not
hold back the tears. A group of women in long
dresses cheered and Khatira Isayeva, a pensioner,
said she was supporting Gambar because he promised
to raise her pension threefold.
Around fifteen policemen watched everything from
the sidelines. They were easily outnumbered by
Gambar's bodyguards - around 40 of whom, wearing
brown jackets and earphones, ringed the crowd
to try and ward off any trouble.
The main opposition candidates in the presidential
race, Gambar and Etibar Mamedov, have, just like
the eight other candidates, five hours of guaranteed
access to television airtime and they are able
to screen election adverts.
But, shut out from state television news coverage,
the opposition is relying heavily on public meetings.
Gambar, a professorial man, now aged 46, is not
an inspiring orator. His strength lies in his
intelligence and experience dating back to the
early Nineties when he was the founder of Azerbaijan's
Popular Front. He was then speaker of parliament
under the short-lived nationalist government of
1992-3 and briefly acting head of state.
An opinion poll published in Echo newspaper on
October 2 gave Ilham Aliev 58 per cent support
in the elections and Gambar 22 per cent. But polls
in Azerbaijan are unreliable and the government
certainly seems to believe Gambar is a threat.
Both he and the other opposition leader Etibar
Mamedov are the targets of an intense dirty tricks
campaign. For example, several insignificant pro-government
politicians have been registered as candidates
and use their airtime to blacken the names of
One of them, Hafiz Hajiev, for example, leader
of the puppet party Contemporary Musavat, has
accused Gambar on television of being an Armenian,
a husband who sponges of his wife (who earns more
than him) and a former KGB collaborator.
The Beilagan rally went so smoothly that Gambar's
electoral staff became worried, not sure of what
was going on.
On the way to the next town of Barda, however,
politics got back to normal. Gambar's cavalcade
was forced to turn round because the main highway
had been dug up. They spent three hours looking
for an alternative route, while the organizers
began to think of cancelling his scheduled rally.
No one in Barda took responsibility for the delay.
But in Baku, Bakhar Muradova, a supporter of the
pro-government New Azerbaijan party, told IWPR,
"As far as I know a part of the road was
closed in Barda because of repair work being carried
out there, however there were other roads and
it did not stop Isa Gambar holding his rally.
"Isa Gambar tries to make himself a hero.
We understood that he needs provocations so he
can complain to international organizations and
so we don't pay any attention to him. For some
reason we don't get complaints from other opposition
candidates like Sabir Rustamkhanli and Lala Shovket."
Eventually, Gambar did make it to the rally in
Barda. "These provocations by the authorities
don't work because people still support my candidacy
in the elections," he told IWPR. "We
have been to a lot of big towns in Azerbaijan
and we've felt the support of the people. People
are tired of the current regime, the country needs
to change and only we can do that."
Up to two thousand people came to the Barda rally
- not that you would have known this if you had
read the next day's edition of Yeni Musavat newspaper,
which put the number at 20,000.
Gambar told the crowd he would create jobs, restore
lost savings, raise salaries and pensions, release
political prisoners and return Nagorno Karabakh
by peaceful means. This was met with approval.
"We don't want war, we want to return to
our homes and live in peace," said one refugee.
Not everyone was impressed though. Fifty-two-year-old
Hasan Mamedov said he would not vote for Gambar.
"Why?" he asked. "Now I have a
small shop, which turns in a small profit. We
all remember the period of chaos in the country
when Musavat was in charge. I don't want to risk
my property so I will vote for Ilham Aliev. After
all he is the son of the president and he will
continue what's been started."
Gambar's biggest test comes not during the campaign
but on election night when many observers expect
the authorities will try to rig the poll in favor
of Ilham Aliev.
"If there is obvious rigging of the vote
the people will have to decide their own fate,"
warned Arif Hajili, head of Gambar's election
campaign. "The future of the people should
not depend on people who have falsified all elections
dating back to 1993."
Hajili said that if they were cheated of a fair
result, Gambar's supporters would protest the
verdict "on streets and squares". "If
they fix the results of the voting we will call
on the people to do that," he said.
Leila Amirova is a freelance journalist based