Presidential election in Azerbaijan show old habits die hard

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

The February 7 snap presidential election in Azerbaijan was a chance for President Ilham Aliyev and his government to allow free and fair elections for once. Instead, it was business as usual with manipulation and violations, including carousel voting, ballot stuffing, and aggressive behavior toward independent observers and journalists throughout the day. The results were unsurprising, and neither were celebrations across the capital Baku. The incumbent secured over 92 percent of the general vote at the time of writing this story.

Pressure against independent observers

Journalist Ulviyya Ali, who covered the election day, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter:

The most common problem I've reported on so far is the pressure on independent observers. They report that they are not allowed to calmly observe [the election], and some report that they are not even allowed to film and are attacked by other observers and [Central Election] commission members.

In an interview with Voice of America, Azerbaijan Service, independent observer Nilufar Afandiyeva said once the voting started, she and other independent observers who were at the polling station were not allowed to move freely within the polling station and accused of interrupting the process. “When we tried to examine the ballots closer, we were threatened that we would be removed by the police. And this happened throughout the day. I was pushed aside by one of the state-appointed observers even though I was not blocking their view.”

Rza Abbaszadə, another independent observer, also complained of pressure: “I am an independent observer trying to ensure that the process is transparent. Once I noticed the irregularity, I was not even allowed to film the violation. If there are no problems [as commission representatives claim], then we should be able to film,” Abbaszade told Voice of America, Azerbaijan service in an interview.

When Sara Rahimova, an independent observer, spotted violations and started questioning the incident, she was yelled at by the members of the election committee as captured by observer Rza Abbaszade.

Journalists were not allowed to film and accused of interrupting the voting.

In general, with an exception of one polling station, all other polling stations I went to, I faced various forms of interventions to my reporting. They would either intervene telling me where I should film (I stand away from the ballot box), or refuse to accept my press card.

And, of course, there were the usual scenes of election day fraud:

The vote on February 7 took place in an environment where “fundamental freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly are constrained,” according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission report published on January 23, 2024.

The mission's preliminary statement published on February 8, 2024 said, “The 7 February early presidential election took place in a restrictive environment, and was marked by the stifling of critical voices and the absence of political alternatives. The incumbent was not meaningfully challenged, and this combined with the shrinking space for independent media, civil society, and political parties, and strengthened powers of incumbency resulted in a contest devoid of genuine pluralism.”

In an interview with Global Voices, Berit Nising Lindeman, the Secretary-General at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who has observed elections in Azerbaijan in the past, said:

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.

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. 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.

On December 7, 2023, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree announcing that the country would hold a snap presidential election on February 7, 2024, instead of the originally scheduled April 2025.

There were seven presidential candidates, including the incumbent—all six openly expressed support for President Aliyev. 

Aliyev has been in power for the past 20 years. 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, which 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 his victory on February 7, Aliyev will serve for another seven-year term until 2031.

According to the latest results from the Central Election Commission, voter turnout was over 76 percent. Experts predict this could be two to three times higher than the actual voter turnout due to the carousel voting and ballot stuffing. “These numbers do not reflect the reality. We saw how authorities organized voters in batches. In the early hours of the election, scores of employees from state institutions were bused to polling stations. Then there was carousel voting. Finally, there were plenty of people we spoke to on the ground who said they won't be voting,” said observer Azer Gasimli in an interview with Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty. Gasimli added, according to his estimates, the voter turnout was even less than 20 percent.

Why the violations? Likely because, in the absence of any experience of holding free and fair elections, the president wanted to avoid a surprise outcome. And avoid he did. Already, scores of leaders from Hungary's Orban to Ukraine's Zelensky have congratulated President Aliyev on this victory. 

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