Azerbaijan – In the aftermath of the Parliamentary Election

On 1 November a parliamentary election was held in Azerbaijan. A total of 767 candidates competed for 125 seats. As largely predicted, the ruling New Azerbaijan (Yeni Azerbaijan) party won the vast majority of seats in the Milli Majilis.

Azerbaijan election results:

YAP- 69 seats
Loyal non-partisan – 40
Other pro-govt – 16

Incumbent reelection rate – 80%

These figures confirm that, as always in the recent history of the country, President Aliyev will be able to count on a huge parliamentarian majority. This element will further reinforce the preponderance of the executive over the legislature. According to official figures, turnout was over 50 per cent.

The electoral campaign, which lasted 23 days, was plagued by controversy.

The campaign started the 8th of October and closed the morning of the 31st, exactly 24 hours before the opening of the polling stations. The Central Electoral Committee, chaired by Mr Mazahir Panahov, was responsible for setting the formal rules of the competition. The national media gave great preponderance to the provisions taken to enhance transparency and inclusiveness, such as the installation of cameras in the polling stations, the streaming on-line of the voting process, the printing of the ballot papers and the placement of ramps for disabled voters. Furthermore, the importance of involving the international media was stressed so as not to cast any shadow on the electoral process.

In spite of these praiseworthy measures, some other points seemed to restrict the national debate. For example, candidates had to be extremely accurate in filling their candidacy forms since mistakes could lead them to being excluded from the competition. Additionally, campaigning tools and venues were regulated in detail. Candidates were not allowed to put up any promotional material on buildings and monuments or to openly criticize the government. Furthermore, only media located in Azerbaijan and approved for state legislation could be used for promotional purposes.

The opposition was also concerned by the economic barriers to access media outlets. In fact, differently from previous parliamentary elections, free airtime was not given to parties presenting candidates in fewer than 60 constituencies. In practical terms, only the New Azerbaijan Party (which declined) would have been entitled to that. It resulted in the Azerbaijani public Television ITV (İctimai Televiziya) costing paid airtime at the colossal sum of 3540 Manat per minute. This provision was criticised as setting unequal conditions for independent candidates. Mr Panahov backed this provision saying, first, that it was due to economic difficulties (even though ITV is fully subsidized by the state)[1] and, second, that it was nonsensical to grant national coverage to parties that were eligible to stand in only some constituencies. He also pointed out the availability of other campaign tools such as: “Meeting directly with voters, preparation and distribution of campaign materials and paid election airtime in media outlets, including media outlets operating across the country.” However, the opposition forces complained that campaign restrictions, together with the unaffordable cost for the election-related advertisements, severely hindered the substantial competitiveness of the campaign.

Another point that raised some questions was the absence of the OSCE/ODIHR monitoring mission. Even though the election was observed by 365 international observers from 36 different organizations, OSCE/ODIHR was not among them. The inability of reaching an agreement on the appropriate number of observers was the main reason behind this forfeit. In its “Needs Assessment Mission Report” (31 August 2015), OSCE/ODIHR recommended the secondment of 30 long-term observers and 350 short-term ones from OSCE-participating states. The Azerbaijani authorities dismissed this request as unacceptable. As a result of this controversy, on the 11th of September ODIHR Director Michael George Link announced, through a press release on the official web site, that: “due to restrictions imposed by the Azerbaijani authorities“, ODIHR had decided to withdraw from observing the election. The Azerbaijani authorities described this choice as a unilateral move and invited the group not to comment further.  More specifically, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that the ODIHR’s proposal to send around 400 observers was disproportionate for a country of 9.5 millions. Ramiz Mahdiyev, the head of Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, backed this position and added, in terms of comparison, that 700 observers were recently sent in Ukraine, where the population was 45 million[2]. The top official Ali Hasanov stated that OSCE/ODIHR has been generally biased toward Azerbaijan. By contrast, Rebecca Vincent, a former US diplomat currently coordinating “Sports for Rights”, an international campaign raising awareness on Human Rights in Azerbaijan, observed that “This election is taking place with no credible international observers”:

This is not the first time the OSCE/ODIHR’s actions in Azerbaijan have been plagued by controversy. In the presidential election of 2013, it was the only group to unequivocally assess the election as rigged. By contrast, authoritative bodies such as PACE (the monitoring mission of the Council of Europe) endorsed the elections as free and fair. Investigating the reasons behind this dramatic discrepancy, the ESI Think Thank argued that some enthusiastic rapporteurs had long-standing personal connections with the Azerbaijani elites and that, by virtue of these ties, in the past they enjoyed fully-funded trips to Baku and generous gifts (which is where the name “Caviar Diplomacy” comes from). The ESI report had great resonance and triggered angry reactions from the Azerbaijani establishment.

The aforementioned electoral controversies lead some opposition parties to announce their intention to boycott the elections (even if individual candidates still decided to run). The Republican Alternative party (REAL) also said it would not recognize the results. It was also proposed to postpone or re-hold the ballot. Remarkably, REAL, whose leader Ilgar Mammedov has been in jail since March 2014, suggested first working to ensure the conditions for a free and fair environment (release of political prisoners, free airtime, etc) and then to repeat the election in 2016. Similarly, the Musavat party asked to reschedule the election and to restore democracy in the country.

Looking at the actual conduct of the election, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF, a platform of opposition parties) said that, in spite of the official claims, the turnout was no higher than 10 per cent and that the result was unrepresentative of the popular will. On the same note, the pro-opposition Turan Information press reported cases of carousel voting and ballot stuffing. Similar comments were made by independent Azerbaijani observers. By contrast, various international observers said that the election were free and fair. Among them the PACE Election Observation, the Bulgarian delegation, observers from Kyrgyzstan and Latvia and the CIS mission.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

[1] “Candidates will not get time on OTV” (2015, 09 October), Turan Information Agency (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[2] “Senior Azeri official accuses Europe of double standards” (2015, November 1) BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

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