Azerbaijan Voters Head To Polls, Will Have Choice Of Some ‘Genuine’ Candidates

Voters across Azerbaijan are going to the polls on February 9 for snap parliamentary elections in the wake of a major government shakeup in the former Soviet republic and pledges of reforms that critics have cast doubt on.

The election originally was scheduled for November 2020 until it was moved forward by nine months in December when President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree to dissolve the existing parliament and called a snap election to determine the 125 lawmakers that will make up the country’s single-chamber parliament, the Milli Majlis.

Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan party (YAP), which controlled a 65-seat majority in the outgoing parliament, says the composition of the legislature needs to be changed in order to carry out Aliyev’s “reform” program, which follows several high-profile changes in the government and his administration near the end of last year that included the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister.

Critics, however, say the party’s hope for a change in the composition of parliament suggests Aliyev’s party may be seeking the two-thirds majority needed to push through constitutional changes and clear the way for Aliyev’s wife, First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, to take over the presidency at a later date.

In fact, parliamentary powers are limited in Azerbaijan. Most political power in the Caucasus nation is concentrated in the hands of the presidency.

The post of prime minister in Azerbaijan has long been held by a close ally of Aliyev, who took over the presidency in 2003 after his father ruled the country the previous 10 years.

Aliyev — who was reelected in 2008, 2013, and 2018 — was able to consolidate his power through a 2009 referendum that abolished the country’s two-term presidential limit and a 2016 referendum that lengthened presidential terms to seven years.

According to Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC), some 5.2 million voters are eligible to cast ballots on February 9.

Polls open at 8 a.m. local time and close at 7 p.m. Initial results are expected to be announced in the early morning hours of February 10.

Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have noted that the number of registered voters in more than half of the 125 constituencies deviates by more than what the Election Code allows.

“A difference of approximately 2 million persists between the number of registered voters as per CEC data and the number of citizens of voting age according to the State Statistics Committee,” the OSCE Election Observation Mission (ODIHR) said in a January 29 pre-election report from Baku.

Voters who have not yet registered are allowed to do so on election day if they provide proof of residency in Azerbaijan.

Election officials registered 1,637 candidates who had applied by the January 10 deadline.

A total of 19 political parties have field 272 of the candidates. They include 123 candidates from the ruling YAP, followed by 25 from the opposition Musavat Party and 21 from the opposition Party of Hope (UMID).

A total of 81 lawmakers, about two-thirds of the outgoing parliament, are seeking re-election.

Istanbul-based Azerbaijani political commentator and contributor to RFE/RL Arzu Geybullayeva says the election will be different from previous parliamentary votes because of the emergence of new “genuine candidates” who are running as independents or who have joined forces under a new political bloc called Movement.

Movement, which was formed in December after the early elections were announced, brings together human rights activists, rights lawyers, election observes, bloggers, feminists, youth activists, and politicians.

Since the registration of candidates was completed on January 17, more than 300 official candidates have withdrawn from the ballot – leaving a total of about 1,300 candidates seeking one of parliament’s 125 seats.

The 22-day official election campaign period began on January 17. Azerbaijan’s Election Code requires campaigning to end a day before the vote.

Poor Democratic Record

Since Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, its elections have repeatedly been deemed as falling short of democratic standards by international observers from the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

OSCE observers say Azerbaijan conducts its elections “within a restrictive environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Independent media also have been stifled economically or closed by force, as was the case with the Baku bureau of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service in December 2014.

The Paris-based media rights group Reports Without Borders says Aliyev has waged “a relentless war” against his media critics, with journalists and bloggers being “jailed on absurd grounds if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail, or bribes.”

The opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front (PFPA) and its allies in the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) are boycotting the February 9 ballot to protest what they say are unfair limitations on access to media and freedom of assembly.

PFPA Deputy Chairman Seymur Hazi told RFE/RL that voters in Azerbaijan have, for years, been denied the opportunity to see the platforms of different candidates and parties debated on television.

“We cannot speak about transparency and results coming from competition in the elections,” Hazi told RFE/RL.

The opposition Republican Alternative Civic Movement (REAL) has decided not to boycott the election, despite the refusal of election officials to register REAL leader Natiq Jafarli as a candidate on grounds that he was charged in 2016 for alleged business practices.

The refusal of the CEC to register Jafarli came despite the fact that prosecutors in Baku dropped the criminal charges against Jafarli in 2017 before a verdict was reached in his trial, and the European Court of Human Rights last November ruled that the charges against him were politically motivated.

“A boycott is unlikely to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections,” Jafarli says. “The authorities don’t want people to go to the polls so that they can comfortably falsify the results. Therefore, we need to massively attract people to the elections.”

But OSCE observers say most media in Azerbaijan have avoided covering the candidates, parties, and political issues during the official campaign period to avoid being accused of violating a stifling “equal coverage” rule in the Election Code.

Aliyev has rejected such criticism from international observers. He insists his government has taken all necessary measures to ensure fair and transparent parliamentary elections that comply with Azerbaijan’s laws and international standards.

Aliyev also has accused the Council of Europe of “targeting Azerbaijan for 20 years” with “double standards and injustice.”

“They depict Azerbaijan as a backward country, ignore positive processes in Azerbaijan, try to blacken Azerbaijan’s reputation, and publish baseless and falsified reports that allege Azerbaijan has political prisoners and hinders democratic processes,” Aliyev says.

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