Azerbaijan’s Contentious Election

In the wake of the recent election in Azerbaijan, the integrity of the nation’s supposed democracy has been brought into question by Azerbaijani citizens and international spectators alike. On February 9th, the country held a snap election that was decided upon during a period of massive reforms last year, where the parliament voted to dissolve itself and the presidential cabinet structure was entirely reorganized. Many fear that these measures were intended to centralize power in the hands of the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, who has now been in power for over 17 years. 

Election observers from both the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that “significant procedural violations during counting and the tabulation have raised concerns over whether the results were established honestly.” The main opposition party in Azerbaijan, the Republican Alternative Party, has also questioned why nearly every politician elected to the country’s new legislature are supporters of Aliyev, with the exception of a single representative from the ReAL Party. 

The outcome of this election was particularly concerning for many in the opposition who originally thought that the intent of holding these early elections was to bring change to the country and give a voice to the opposition that has continuously been stifled over the course of Aliyev’s rule. Yet, after seeing that this election did none of these things, many have questioned what Aliyev’s true intent was when he decided to hold such a spontaneous election. 

Since 2015, many Azerbaijani citizens have been growing restless due to problems caused by a drop in oil prices and the resulting economic downturn in the country’s largely petroleum-dependent economy. According to human rights analyst Anar Mammaldi, “Aliyev chose to hold these elections eight months ahead of schedule as he fears that protest sentiment would grow further by November.” 

Furthermore, the public confidence in the election process has deteriorated due to the fact that the electoral commissions are controlled by Aliyev’s party, and much of the country’s media has deprived coverage to Aliyev’s opposition. The International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) also claimed to have encountered problems within 7% of polling stations that they observed, which they believe to be “a statistically high figure that is indicative of serious procedural shortcomings.” Turnout for this election was also particularly low, with only 45% of eligible citizens casting their votes. 

Nevertheless, supporters of Aliyev have continued to claim that the outcome of the election simply proves that the Azerbaijani people overwhelmingly support the reforms that have been made by the President and his party over the previous year. President Aliyev has recently appointed a number of Western-educated administrators to help him accelerate economic reforms, such as the diversification of Azerbaijan’s economy. His supporters also believe that his actions to hold early elections have actually encouraged political competition in the country’s democracy. In defense of this claim, they have highlighted the fact that this election had a record-high number of candidates running as proof that the elections were truly fair and free. 

Yet, many in the opposition party have continued to point out that the repressive political atmosphere in the country has deprived the candidates who oppose Aliyev of a fair chance to succeed. The Aliyev family has retained political power for nearly the entirety of Azerbaijan’s young democracy, as both Ilham Aliyev and his father Heydar Aliyev, a former leader in the country’s Soviet-era, have been the only two presidents elected since 1993. According to Reuters, none of the elections held in the country since Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003 have been recognized as fair and free by international observers. 

Opposition parties have called for mass demonstrations to take place in the country’s capital, Baku, on February 16th in order to contest the legitimacy of the recent election. They hope that these protests could potentially help to garner support for a new election to occur, only with closer supervision to ensure that the same irregularities do not contaminate the results once again.

Niru Ghoshal-Datta