It all started in September 2022, when parliament began discussions over a new law that would make it virtually impossible for new political parties to form in Azerbaijan. The argument the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) officials used at the time was that the existing law dating to the 1990s needed reforms. As one member of the parliament put it in an interview, the 30-year-old legislation was “no longer adequate to the requirements of the modern era.” But the proposed bill had a number of draconian restrictions, ranging from a minimum number of party members as well as requirements around the party's founding members, funding mechanisms, and more. While some of these and other restrictions were softened, the parliament did approve the revised bill in December 2022, and the law went into effect in January 2023. For political activists and members of opposition parties, the changes that were made to the adopted bill were nothing but window-dressing. Months after its adoption, scores of political parties have ceased to exist in Azerbaijan.
The existing bill on Political Parties has been in place since 1992. Several iterations of the law have been passed since then, with the most recent amendments proposed in 2022. According to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) joint opinion published in March 2023, the new amendments, although “more detailed” and “elaborate” in most of the areas, the regulations have become “much stricter.” The two institutions found the following amendments as some of the most “problematic provisions” risking further erosion of political pluralism, as noted in their joint opinion:
- the increase of the minimum number of members of the party from 1,000 to 5,000;
- the need for the already registered political parties to undergo a re-registration;
- the lengthy terms and cumbersome procedure foreseen for the establishment and registration of political parties;
- the prohibition to operate a political party without state registration;
- the overregulation of internal party structures and operations;
- the excessive control exercised by the Ministry of Justice over party activities and over the registers of members of political parties;
- the possibility to suspend the activities of a political party or even dissolve a party in cases not involving serious violations of the legal acts by such a party.
One of the political parties which has recently been denied registration is REAL (Republican Alternative) party. According to the official response the party received from the Ministry of Justice, the party failed to meet the requirement of the minimum number of members required for registration. In a post on Meta, the party's founder and chair, Ilgar Mammadov, said the party now has 30 days to either “correct the information of its 4,500+ members, recruit new members within the requirements of the new law, or close down the party.”
Rights defenders have also voiced concerns over the Ministry of Justice calling members of political parties to confirm their affiliation, describing the move as a form of political pressure. “How can we know whether citizens who are called by the Ministry are not threatened? Or that their information is stored accurately,” asked Anar Mammadli, an Azerbaijani expert on election and public administration, in an interview with Meydan TV. The expert also warned that the recent closure of political parties signals an attempt to artificially reduce the number of political parties in the country, which could help the ruling party consolidate and maintain power:
In democratic countries, parties dissolve after elections — if they lose, they leave the political scene. Azerbaijan has not had democratic elections and the political environment is suffocating. It is against this environment that the sate is resorting to artificial measures. It seems that the state is interested in keeping 10–15 political parties. Perhaps, for the purpose of reducing the financial support in the future or form coalitions with smaller parties – whatever the reasons are, it is hard to tell. In all cases, the process aims to artificially reduce the number of political parties.
According to the current list of the Central Election Commission, there were 59 political parties registered in 2022. At the time of writing this story, 29 political parties have dissolved, making that list outdated. Even parties known for their affiliation and sympathy with the ruling government were among the dissolved parties. Former political prisoner Seymur Hezi wrote in a post on Meta, “regardless of political affiliations … given the existing legal framework and international conventions our country has joined, even if it's just five people, they should be able to set up political parties and operate.”
Opposition political parties have long struggled in Azerbaijan, faced with arrests, detentions, financial hurdles, or persecution of their members, to name a few. And the ruling YAP has dominated the scene ever since it was founded. The contested parliamentary election held in March 2020 changed little of the makeup of the national assembly — candidates seen as loyal to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party won all but one of the 125 seats in the National Assembly. And although some observers wondered whether the authorities were planning to bring new faces into Azerbaijani politics, 87 parliamentarians kept their seats. Addressing the parliament at the time, President Ilham Aliyev tasked the newly elected members to adopt bills that would help the country reform. Since then, the parliament has approved controversial bills on media and political parties, tightened control over online content, and introduced measures restricting personal rights (new legislation introducing compulsory mediation for couples seeking divorce), to name a few.
Freedom House has ranked Azerbaijan “not free” since 2020 in its Freedom in the World report.