Azerbaijan is holding snap presidential elections on 11 April under a new constitution. Despite the opposition candidates not barred from or boycotting the race trying to present themselves as independent or oppositional, there is little doubt Ilham Aliyev will be reelected to a now extended term of seven more years.
Early presidential elections are now scheduled to be held in Azerbaijan on 11 April, after president Ilham Aliyev ordered on 5 February. The public has not been informed why the election, which was due to be held on 17 October, was moved forward.
The only statement offering any explanation was given to local media by Ali Hasanov, Assistant for Public and Political Affairs for the President of Azerbaijan. Hasanov said the main reason for early elections is that local and international events are to be held in the country from May. According to him, the majority of these events will take place towards the end of the year, and would have overlapped with the elections.
After the September 2016 referendum, amendments to the constitution made it possible for the president to declare extraordinary presidential elections, and the presidential term was extended to seven years.
Immediately after the order, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party held its 6th Party Congress on 8 February, and endorsed the candidacy of Ilham Aliyev, who has been president since 2003, for his fourth term.
The political parties that are recognised as the real force of the opposition have all vowed not to take part. The National Council for Democratic Forces, the Musavat Party, and the Republican Alternative Movement (REAL) have all released statements pledging to boycott the election. Others, including the Azerbaijan Umid Party and the Classic Popular Front Party have also said they will not participate.
MP Aydin Mirzazade, a member of the political council of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, says that these elections will be as democratic and transparent as previous elections in Azerbaijan.
‘There have been many elections since Azerbaijan gained its independence, and there has been a fairly democratic election experience. We believe that this election will be held democratically, fair and in accordance to the Constitution and Electoral Code’, he told OC Media.
Ali Hasanov, Assistant for Public and Political Affairs to the President, told local media that the conduct of the elections, whether they are held in October or April, should not be seen as limiting or giving advantages to Aliyev or any other candidate.
An election ‘without the headache
Jamil Hasanli, chairman of the National Council of Democratic Forces, disagrees. ‘The public must be warned about early elections’, he told OC Media, noting that the authorities could easily have announced their decision at the end of last year.
‘This is a snap election. The government wants to hold the elections at a more favourable time, and without international attention’, he said.
Hasanli says the environment for holding elections in the country is not a normal one.
‘There cannot be free elections without an independent media. The independent media was destroyed; civil society institutions have collapsed. After the decision to hold a snap election, it became clear that the collapse of these institutions was part of the Azerbaijani government’s election strategy’, he said.
‘First of all, the government wants to start the electoral process before any activity pops up’, Akif Gurbanov, a former member of the Central Election Commission and head of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives, a local NGO, told OC Media. He says the president’s decision to call an early election comes from both internal and external pressure, but mostly internal.
‘The opposition are unprepared for this step. On this basis, they will hold elections without competition, resistance, and internal pressure’, Gurbanov said. According to him, the authorities want to hold this election ‘without any headaches’, as much as possible.
He says that such short notice can prevent the OSCE and other influential and objective international observation missions from monitoring effectively.
Gurbanov says that given previous election practices, had they decided to participate in the election, the opposition would likely have been deprived of many of their legal rights, such as free airtime, if they were allowed to register at all.
‘If real opponents are absent, they will register people who they control’, he says.
He also said the government will carry out the election without a real alternative, and without any conditions for fair and democratic elections. He also points out that the lack of protection for fundamental rights in the country gives grounds to say that the electoral environment does not meet standards.
‘Many political parties have no headquarters, and there is no freedom of assembly, either in a closed or in open spaces’. Akif Gurbanli also mentions the organizations which want to turn into a party but there is no place to held a congress.
‘Freedom of expression is frequently violated. Opponents are constantly under pressure because of what they say. The media is also in a very difficult situation.”
Repression — an integral part of the election strategy
Chairman of the National Council of Democratic Forces, Jamil Hasanli, notes that recent political imprisonments will also affect the elections.
‘The people with the power to participate in the elections, and those who control the election headquarters of parties, are currently political prisoners. Three deputy chairmen of the Popular Front Party, and more than half of the members of the presidium are currently in jail’, Hasanli says.
‘Since last year, the government has not given a place to REAL in congress in order for it to turn into a political party’, Azer Gasimli, REAL’s Political Affairs Officer, says. ‘REAL is not going to participate in the election’ he says, citing, Ilgar Mammadov, the leader of REAL, having been imprisoned for for more than six years.
‘Either you should boycott the election and not recognise the legitimacy of it, or you have to participate in the elections despite the non-democratic conditions’, Gasimli says.
The Musavat Party’s statement on the snap elections says the election is based on the results of a fraudulent referendum, and that the authorities have provided no substantial, convincing explanation for why they were brought forward. Because there are no pre-election liberties in the country, it was decided to continue the struggle by refusing to participate in these elections. The Musavat Party currently demands the cancellation of the extraordinary presidential election.
Akif Gurbanov says the recommendations of both the Venice Commission and the OSCE have not been followed. ‘In the European Court, decisions on forming election commissions were not yet fulfilled. No serious steps have been taken towards enacting positive changes in legislation’, he says. According to Gurbanov, elections in the country, as an institution, have lost all meaning as a instrument for the nation to express their will.
Voices for participation
Despite most of the opposition boycotting and protesting the election, some parties are still running for the presidency; the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan is one of these. Their leader, Sardar Jalaloghlu, says they are going to take part in the election because the principle of participation is very important in democracy.
‘If only the ruling party takes part in the ongoing election, and the opposition does not participate, the vast majority of voters will not be interested. In this case, elections will gradually lose their importance’, he notes. Jalaloghlu thinks boycotting the elections is the wrong decision, and says his party wants to take full advantage of whatever opportunities are available in this election, regardless of how good or bad they are.
‘If the Democratic Party can pass through all the procedures, we will take part in the election till its end’, he says. This, he says, is an opportunity to get in touch with the voters. ‘We have no contact with the people at other times’, he adds.