ZOiS Spotlight 7/2020 by Altay Goyushov (19 February 2020)
Azerbaijanis went to the polls on 9 February in a snap parliamentary election which did not render any significant change to the political landscape of the country. Azerbaijan’s next legislature will once again convene without a viable opposition and the country’s political system will continue to lack a system of checks and balances. The parliament will again be a rubber stamp for the executive, and the country’s future remains uncertain amid growing problems for the economy.
A background of discontent
In early December 2019, the Azerbaijani legislature approved a request by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party to dissolve parliament and ask the president to call a snap election. A few days later, president Ilham Aliyev signed a decree to do just that, allowing for a vote.
The government justified the move as a strategy to accelerate ongoing reforms in the country. Some observers claimed that the election was called to pave the way for the country’s vice president, who is also the president’s wife, to replace her husband as head of state. However, it is also possible that the early election was announced simply to give the opposition little time to prepare amid growing signs of discontent due to economic difficulties in the country.
This discontent expressed itself when the authorities attempted to bring new charges against imprisoned prominent blogger Mehman Huseynov. In January, the biggest opposition rally in recent times in support of political prisoners was held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The government reacted by dropping charges against Huseynov and, more importantly, accelerating its reformist discourse. At the same time, the authorities took steps to address pressing social issues and dismissed the most notorious members of the ruling elite.
Novelties and controversies
The registration of candidates in this election went relatively smoothly, although some former political prisoners were barred from registering despite repeated calls from the Council of Europe to allow them to do so. One of the main opposition blocs, the National Council, refused to participate in the election, citing an unfavourable environment for free and fair competition, especially the ruling party’s complete control over the Central Election Commission. Yet, some other opposition groups did take part in the contest. One of the most significant developments was the participation of independent youth activists, either individually or as part of the electoral blocs.
Compared with previous elections, this campaign was conducted without serious incident, and opposition and independent candidates faced less pressure from local and central authorities. Opposition candidates could not use TV, which is under the full control of the government, for campaign ads or appeals to the public because of the high prices for doing so. However, this was to some extent compensated by active social media campaigning. The savvy use of social media by opposition candidates and their election observers contributed to the widespread exposure of irregularities including ballot stuffing and multiple voting at many polling stations on election day.
One of the most important novelties of this campaign was the way social media helped shed light on the public criticism that many pro-government candidates received in meetings with voters. Yet, although they were clearly deeply unpopular, most of these candidates were still declared winners after the election.
Low turnout and dashed hopes
Election day and the announcement of the official results dashed hopes once more. The turnout was very low, primarily because of the public’s distrust of the electoral process. Although the Central Election Commission put the official turnout at 47.8 per cent, the vast majority of local election observers reported that this number exceeded the real figure many times over. Even one of the election winners, Erkin Gadirli of the opposition Republican Alternative, announced at his post-election press conference that his numbers were extremely inflated.
Widespread irregularities such as multiple voting, ballot stuffing, and pressure on independent and opposition observers were among the methods the authorities used to falsify the results. As the observation mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly indicated in a statement, ‘the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the [election and] the vote count was assessed negatively in 66 of 113 observations’. The election was followed by a couple of protest attempts of opposition and independent candidates in front of the Central Election Commission, which were promptly and sometimes violently dispersed by police.
Others were more optimistic about the election. Some local and international observers claimed that these results ‘would allow the president to remove unpopular old elites under the guise of political reforms’. Yet, the results showed that the make-up of the parliament remained more or less unchanged. Moreover, the unpopular old guard seems to have been more of an imagined hindrance than a real obstacle to the ruling family’s alleged reform intentions. For most authoritarian rulers, power is not a means to achieving change but a goal in itself.
Altay Goyushov is a professor of history at the Baku Research Institute and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.