The preliminary results of the snap parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan were a painful reality check for parts of the country’s democratic opposition. Despite the reform rhetoric, Ilham Aliyev’s government seems set to continue the authoritarian course.
“The 9 February elections have been nothing but a major disappointment. If the early results confirm, it will be a big disaster for our country,” said Natig Jafarli, Executive Secretary of the opposition Republic Alternative party (REAL) and one of the contestants in the elections.
The unofficial numbers point to a major victory of the ruling New Azerbaijan party that is believed to have secured some 71 mandates in the 125-seat parliament. The rest will go to so-called independent candidates who in practice hold pro-government stance. From the genuine opposition forces, only Erkin Gadirli, a lawyer from REAL, might make it to the legislative body.
The voting process was far from Western standards. Observers noted a number of serious violations across the country, including carousel voting (multiple voting by the same person), intimidation of independent observers, and ballot stuffing. Following the closing of polling stations, social media were flooded with a video recording showing how commission members awkwardly pull out piles of illegal ballots and add them to the mix of counted votes.
“Once again the international community will see that there is no real change in Azerbaijan. They should not wait for reforms any longer. This is just blah blah blah”, said Akif Gurbanov, chairman of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives that conducted a monitoring of the Sunday vote in the 33 most active constituencies. According to data from his 250 observers deployed across the regions, the real turnout was about 20 per cent – twice smaller than the figure reported by the Central Election Commission at 47 per cent.
Status quo will persist
The elections were originally slated for this fall, but in December 2019, President Ilham Aliyev unexpectedly dismissed the parliament and appointed a new date of the vote, for 9 February.
Public officials quoted the need to modernise and rejuvenate the Azerbaijani legislative body so that it becomes more fit to pass the reform package promoted by the government. Unofficially, the rising political star of the Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva (privately, the wife of Ilham Aliyev) and last fall’s reshuffle at the upper echelons of power, after which many influential officials had lost their positions, also played a role.
Although Azerbaijan is formally a presidential republic and the legislative branch does not matter much in designing policies, the parliamentary elections were to serve as a litmus test for the real intention of the government’s reform process and the country’s future political direction.
“The preliminary results showed that the Azerbaijani parliament is formed – as previously – by the will of the ruling family, not the people. Although the government might have allocated seats to a few Western-educated young people and specialists, this parliament will not be significantly different from the previous ones,” says Gubad Ibadoglu, an Azerbaijani political analyst and visiting professor at the Rutgers University in the United States.
Meanwhile, following the announcement of the early vote, there has been a fierce debate between different opposition forces and civil society: does it make sense to participate in the vote in an undemocratic system that has not seen free and fair elections for nearly two decades?
For the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), a major coalition of opposition parties, it was a resounding “no.”
Ali Kerimli, leader of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, the largest group in NCDF, emphasised that there can be no free elections without proper systemic reforms.
„Is it even conceivable that there could be parliamentary elections in the absence of TV presence and public debates? In the absence of political rallies? Our decision to not take part in these “elections” is extremely rational and takes into account the futility of affecting the results. In such conditions, our participation would only play into the hands of the ruling regime, creating an image of political competition,” Kerimli, who has been refused a travel passport for the last 14 years, explains.
„Ultimately, our decision not to participate in this game is aimed at preserving the public’s hope and energy for the real change and real political engagement – not to be determined by government’s schedule,” the politician adds.
Not everyone would agree in the opposition camp. REAL, Musavat, and the newly formed Herakat movement, encouraged by the government-led reform discourse, saw the elections as a window of opportunity for genuine change and decided to run. But on Sunday, as news of massive irregularities unfolded with each hour, they did not hide their disappointment.
“Whatever happened today happened in darkness. The lights went out in Azerbaijan,” wrote REAL’s Natig Jafarli on his Facebook page as he helplessly watched the flawed counting process.
Hopes were dashed also for many young people who have engaged in the election campaign and the monitoring process in record numbers.
Although today’s 20-year-olds and younger had no opportunity to see other people in power than the representatives of the Aliyev clan, many harboured hopes that the wind of change would finally reach their homelands.
But the Sunday vote was a painful reality check.
Rapper Jamal Ali who was been forced to flee his country in 2012 due to political lyrics targeting the president, quipped on his Facebook page in reference to the marred Sunday vote:
“Citizen, are you crying or it has been raining? – No, they spat on my face.”
Against the backdrop of the politically turbulent neighbours Georgia and Armenia, the Caspian republic, in which the same family has been leading the government for a quarter-century, looks stable, although it has little to do with democracy. When in 2003, Ilham Aliyev took over power at the age of 42 from the hands of his ailing father, many hoped that the young president would show a more liberal approach to policymaking. But instead a political thaw, the son tightened the screws on civil liberties even more.
In its annual democracy ranking, the Economist Intelligence Unit, affiliated with UK’s prestigious weekly, the Economist, Azerbaijan is ranked 146th out of 167 countries, lagging behind Turkey, Russia or even Kazakhstan.
But following last fall’s personnel revolution in the government and promises of reform, many people, especially the young generation, wanted to believe the most repressive chapter is over.
In November 2019, 82-year old Ramiz Mehdiyev was dismissed from his position of the head of Presidential Administration. The official, who held the post for nearly a quarter of a century, was thought to be the chief architect behind the crackdown policies against civil society and political dissidents.
Not so bleak
Although the Sunday vote did not leave much hope for imminent change, Bahruz Samadov, a 24-year old member of the pro-democratic N!DA movement (exclamation mark in Azeri), stressed that the country’s future is not bleak as we can see the rise of new actors that belong neither to opposition nor the government’s camp.
“For the first time, we have observed how politics and its dichotomies in Azerbaijan could be different. The emergence of the third forces and experience that they are gaining these days are important. I believe it will lead to further politicisation of the urban-based youth because now they know how what the alternative politics looks like,”, Samadov said.
One of them was a 29-year old Mehman Huseynov, a popular video blogger who exposes corruption and excessive wealth of government officials.
In 2017, his bold activities landed him in prison and he was declared a prisoner of conscience after being sentenced for two years in jail on trumped-up charges. Though he decided to run for parliament, Huseynov had no illusion that candidates like him can get elected in the current conditions.
“I’m not a politician and I don’t fight for power or a parliamentary seat. I just use this vote to get as many people as possible interested in what is happening these days in Azerbaijan. The elections gave an opportunity to meet and communicate with voters. I want them to follow our activities and not to be afraid to protests if such a need arises,” the blogger said a few days before the scheduled vote, adding that beyond the campaign period, authorities may restrict encounters with voters.
Huseynov was also a subject of the biggest scandal of this year’s election campaign. Faraj Guliyev, former MP and Huseynov’s rival in the constituency offered him 15,000 manat (9,000 dollars) in exchange for withdrawing from the parliamentary race. Blogger not only turned down the offer but revealed the recorded conversation and reported the case to the prosecutor’s office.
“The bribe proposal shows that the authorities of Azerbaijan are afraid of honest, transparent elections and would prefer to keep candidates like me away from the elections.”
According to the preliminary results, Huseynov has not won a seat in the parliament. But he vows to continue his activism.
Europe should not give up on Azerbaijan
Although the composition of the new parliament may almost ideally reflect the will of the government, some experts warn that in the long-run, it may be a pyrrhic victory for President Ilham Aliyev and his ruling party.
“These elections have not solved society’s problems. On the contrary, they promise aggression and tension in the future,” thinks Gubad Ibadoglu.
Asked what the February vote may mean for the region and the European Union, the professor does not beat about the bush.
“The election showed that Azerbaijan is not adhering to European values and respecting them. It also showed that the government is following the same course as Russia and Belarus and is not going to integrate into Europe and NATO.”
It could be an important message for Poland as the energy-rich Azerbaijan located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia is seen as a vital strategic partner. With Baku’s gradual shifting towards Russia, future business deals may come under deeper scrutiny.
The current situation also casts a shadow on how Europe is being perceived in Azerbaijan.
“There is much less public trust in the EU, and in general the West, with regard to its commitment to value-driven policies and support for democracy in our country. There is also an impression that it is easy to buy off at least certain politicians in the West,” says Leila Alieva, England-based Azerbaijani political analyst affiliated with the University of Oxford.
“That is why support for democracy in Azerbaijan should go along with a “rehabilitation” of the West’s image,” the analyst stresses, adding that economic cooperation with Azerbaijan should be conditioned upon the government’s progress in the area of human rights and democratisation.
Offering support for civil society development, the Eastern Partnership program, initiated in 2009 by Poland and Sweden, appears as an important instrument in achieving that goal. Despite little changes at the political level, conservative Azerbaijan increasingly sees the emergence of new movements such as environmental, social-rights or equality groups.
„Europe should engage more with Azerbaijan. And engage not only politically but also on a variety of fronts. The concept of civil society should be reframed and include educational institutions, art, culture, and science,” says Rashad Shirinov, a Baku-based political analyst and social researcher, adding that it’s time the EU moved beyond non-governmental organisations in its support for civil society.
I understand this will not bring change in the short run. But this is going to be an investment,” the analyst concludes.