Azerbaijan: Competition-free vote to settle Aliyev’s grip on power

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On February 7, over six million eligible voters in Azerbaijan are headed to polls to elect Azerbaijan's next president in a snap vote. Among seven registered candidates is incumbent President Ilham Aliyev who marked twenty years in power in 2023 since taking over the presidential seat from his father Haydar Aliyev in 2003.

The last time the country held a presidential election was in 2018, in which Aliyev was re-elected for a seven-year term (courtesy of a controversial referendum held in 2016 that extended the presidential term from five to seven years). All major opposition parties boycotted the election in 2018, while local and international election monitors found that the elections were neither free nor fair. In 2009, as a result of a constitutional referendum, Azerbaijan removed the term limits on the number of times an incumbent official may serve. With much of civil society under Aliyev's thumb, he is set to win a new term.

According to the Central Election Commission, there are 800 international observers among 90,000 registered observing the election all over the country. Global Voices spoke with Berit Nising Lindeman, the
Secretary General at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who has observed elections in Azerbaijan in the past.

Global Voices (GV): How would you describe the current political and election environment in Azerbaijan, having observed the elections in the past and having been watching the developments within the country over the years? What are your expectations?

Berit Nising Lindeman (BNL): Elections in Azerbaijan, tend to be predictable affairs. They are neither expected to be free, nor fair. There is little or no doubt that Ilham Aliyev, the 62-year-old incumbent, will be re-elected for a fifth term as president of Azerbaijan. The country has been ruled by the Aliyev family since 1993 when Heydar Aliyev became independent Azerbaijan’s first president. In 2003, his son Ilham took over, presenting himself as a guarantor of stability and pursuing his father’s policies. Since then, the Aliyev family has allied the country with the West, helping to secure its energy and security interests, and counterbalancing Russia’s influence in the strategic Caspian region. Co-operation between the West and Azerbaijan has flourished over the years, but Azerbaijan’s human rights record has deteriorated in the meantime.

As an international observer, I’ve monitored several elections in Azerbaijan over the past three decades. Elections in this beautiful country have unfortunately been marred by fraud and irregularities since the country gained its independence from the USSR in 1991. As an observer, I had to conclude that each round of flawed elections was a lost opportunity for Azerbaijan to step away from post-Soviet autocracy towards democracy. Widespread irregularities included multiple voting, ballot stuffing, and violence and pressure on independent and opposition observers. The authorities habitually falsified results in an atmosphere of intimidation.

Azerbaijan has never held elections deemed free and fair by credible election monitors. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the region’s most authoritative election monitoring body, has often stated that Azerbaijan simply ignores concerns about securing the most basic human rights protections in the country. Most such elections have led to a considerable number of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR has found Azerbaijan in breach of the right to free elections for reasons ranging from irregularities in the electoral process to arbitrary invalidation of election results and ineffective examination of complaints about electoral abuses.

The upcoming elections are unlikely to be any different. It must be the most lackluster election ever as society seems effectively disenchanted from the political processes in a country that has seen one fraudulent election after the other. The election campaign is dreary and has little visibility. While there are six alternative candidates, all are puppet contenders with no intention or realistic chance of winning, and it would be absurd to speak of a competitive process. Since all six candidates publicly support and praise the policies of President Aliyev, there are no serious and meaningful debates or campaign materials of a competitive nature. None of these state-aligned opponents poses any challenge to Aliyev, who got 86 percent of the vote in his most recent presidential elections.

GV: Countless election observation reports by the OSCE/ODIHR mission have noted the irregularities of which you speak and the country's independent journalists as well as local observers have documented the extent of these allegations. What do these experiences as well as yours as an observer, tell us about the election as a process in Azerbaijan?

BNL: Through systematic repression, the government has effectively diminished public trust in the country’s electoral process. Popular apathy and the low turnouts suggest citizens’ serious disenchantment with a political system that has repeatedly produced sham elections. Due to the lack of popular engagement in electoral politics, grassroots-driven change is unlikely in the near term as the government escalates the repression.

GV: Scores of independent journalists have been arrested in the run-up to the election among them women reporters, with smuggling charges leveled against them. But this is not the first time, we are observing politically motived arrests in the country. You have also mentioned your concerns about the country's leadership failing to secure the most basic human rights in the country, what does it tell us about the leadership and how its viewed abroad? 

BNL: I know some of them and I appreciate their valued contribution to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Azerbaijan. One victim of the crackdown is Aziz Orujov, director of Kanal13 online TV. This is not the first politically motivated prosecution of him. In 2017, he was sentenced to six years on bogus charges, and he was recognized as a prisoner of conscience. While he is behind bars again now, a Baku court recently ordered the blocking of his media group in online sources.

On January 24 this year the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Europe’s leading human rights body, refused to ratify the credentials of the Azerbaijani delegation, citing the country’s poor human rights and democracy record. Being one of the 46 members of the Council of Europe since January 2001, the government had long snubbed this international institution by ignoring its requirements for human rights reforms, systematically dismantling the country’s independent civil society, and hunting the critics of the government on political motives. The stakes are high because Azerbaijan reportedly is threatening to leave the Council of Europe.

But despite President Aliyev still presenting himself as a reformer, he must receive the message that reform has to be about deeds and not just words. The worsening human rights situation has raised the overall level of autocracy and sparked serious doubts about the promised reforms. The government’s human rights practices run the risk of destabilizing the country as they further polarize society and drive dissent underground. Until the political prisoners are released and suppression of the political opponents is stopped, no credible election resonating with the genuine will of the Azerbaijani people will take place in the country.

Azerbaijani people desperately need greater confidence in their country's future as a democratic state, where the rule of law is assured, and elections are held without fraud and other unfair practices.

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