As Azerbaijanis prepare to go to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections, local election observers have released a damning report of the undemocratic environment the campaign was held.
The campaign period for the first snap parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan’s post-independence period, which officially began on 17 January, will end on Saturday.
The Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDS), a local election observer group, released a report on Thursday assessing the campaign.
EMDS stated that the period before and during the campaign was marked by an environment of restricted political freedoms, including freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
The parties most visible during the campaign, according to the report, were the New Azerbaijan, Musavat, Umid, Popular Front, and Civic Solidarity parties, as well as unofficial electoral blocks Real Republicans and Movement.
Rasim Guliyev, head of the Resource Analytical Information Centre, told APA that the vast majority of candidates were under 45 years old, a third of candidates were aged 29-39 and 7% were 18–28.
According to the report, most of the spaces designated for candidates to meet the electorate were unfavourable in terms of space, transport links, and their condition.
They also noted that in many, pictures of President Ilham Aliyev and former president Heydar Aliyev were hung despite candidates requesting they be removed.
The report said that administrative arrest and torture ‘still remain a major tool of pressure on opposition activists’.
On 30 January, Anvar Jalilov, a member of the Socialist of Truth Movement, was detained and fined for handing out leaflets promoting a boycott of the elections.
Pressure on candidates
The EMDS report pointed out that during the campaign, the only platform for opposition and independent candidates were social media and a few independent news websites.
On Monday the Facebook pages of the opposition Musavat party and the Basta media website, which is close to the party, were blocked in Azerbaijan and remain unreachable.
According to the Election Code, only parties with candidates registered in more than 60 districts are eligible for free airtime while other parties must pay for it.
While the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, which met these requirements, refused free airtime from the Public Broadcaster, opposition and independent candidates said the price for airtime was too expensive and did not apply for it, preferring social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube.
According to the report, after the end of the registration stage, the number of candidates reduced dramatically. The Central Election Committee announced that from 1,637 candidates registered for the elections, 315 withdrew their candidacies.
The authors said that observers reported at least 44 candidates from 21 constituencies withdrew their candidacies because of the pressure from local government structures. Others, the report said, withdrew their candidacies because of pressure from relatives.
Prominent blogger Mehman Huseynov, who also ran for the municipal elections, reported that MP Faraj Guliyev tried to bribe him to withdraw. The Central Election Committee issued a warning to Guliyev but did not disqualify him.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijani blogger ‘offered bribe’ by opponent to pull out of parliamentary race]
On Thursday, a number of independent candidates reported that they were called to police stations without an official summons. The candidates, who refused to appear at the police stations, have said they were sure it was directly connected with their participation in the elections.
Ehsan Zakhidov, the head of the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, told Turan that the messages were not true.
Candidates from the ruling party and others close to the government also faced pressure while campaigning, from voters unhappy with their performance.
In February, several MPs were met with anger by constituents during meetings with the electorate in the regions. Local residents expressed open disrespect and expressed serious dissatisfaction with the government’s work, which resulted in MPs being expelled from the area.
Such cases happened to Fazail Aghamalıyev from the Ana Veten (Motherland) Party, Aydin Mirzazade from the New Azerbaijan Party, independent MPs Sahib Aliyev and Chingiz Ganizade, Elshan Musayev from the Democratic Enlightenment party, as well as other MPs of the previous convocation of the parliament.
Intransparency of the Central Electoral Committee
The report said that electoral commissions refused to reply to observers’ requests and did not inform them of commission meetings.
It said no information about the agendas of meetings was posted outside district commissions and the requests by observers for copies of the agendas were denied.
The authors said that voter lists at some polling stations were located in places not visible to voters.
Despite the CEC providing citizens who requested registration as observers certificates, they rejected many applicants’ requests to observe CEC meetings without explanation.
According to the report, complaints to district election commissions during the campaign were mainly related to early campaigning, the destruction of candidates’ posters, pressure on candidates from executive structures, and interference to candidates’ meetings with voters.
CEC issued warnings to four candidates as a result.