Election in Azerbaijan 2020.

Election in Azerbaijan 2020.

Election Azerbaijan’s Snap Parliamentary Election: One Step Forward Two Steps Back

On February 9 elections to the National Parliament – Milli Məclis  – were held in Azerbaijan, nine months early. The […]

Published on balticworlds.com on February 17, 2020

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On February 9 elections to the National Parliament – Milli Məclis  – were held in Azerbaijan, nine months early. The snap elections followed a presidential decree dissolving the existing Parliament in November on the request of the MPs themselves. Even if no official explanation was given the hasty dismissal of the legislative branch of the Government is generally believed to be related to the wind of change blowing through the power structures since early 2019. During the year President Ilham Aliyev has conducted institutional restructuring under the banner of ‘reform and renewal’ and facilitated a cadre change where older members of his administration have been replaced with a new generation of technocrats. Dispersing the parliament appeared as the next logical step, particularly in the light of the President’s publicly voiced criticism against the government, suggesting some officials were obstructing the reform process.[1] Thus, many interpreted this development as an opening and as a result the election campaign saw an unusual amount and wide range of candidates and activity. As the results were announced anticipation turned into disappointment. It became clear despite some hopes to the contrary the composition of deputies in the new parliament did not contain any surprises. Nonetheless, the increased participation still makes this election interesting, important and worth taking a closer look at.

Election Prologue: Winds of Change

The President’s calls for reform should be seen against the background of a continuous global reduction in oil production and falling energy prices. Serious reforms have long been needed to diversify the Azerbaijani economy at present relying primarily on revenues from oil and gas leaving the country vulnerable in many ways.[2] In Azerbaijan, often described as a ‘rentier state,[3]’ oil is seen as the core reason for the stability of the Aliyev family’s autocratic rule.

A further deterioration of economic conditions is likely to cause more public dissatisfaction and make the situation more volatile. To ensure reform it is imperative institutions, structures and policy in many different fields are adjusted to facilitate the necessary change and renewal. However, at this point many remain skeptic to the winds of change. So far there appears to have been less focus on major institutional reforms than on reshuffling positions among the political elites.[4] Moreover, this political commotion, it has been suggested, might rather be related to a power struggle between the family of the First Vice President (also first lady) Merhiban Aliyeva and those remaining in high positions who were close to Heydar Aliyev, the current presidents father.[5] Rumors of the old guard being systematically replaced by younger, technocratic officials associated with the first vice president and her family have been consistent over the past years.[6] While lack of openness and access to reliable information tend to make rumors a fundamental part of the political discussion in authoritarian regimes it also make them notoriously hard to verify. However, it is beyond doubt the removal of two high profiles associated with the old political elite became the catalyst for the unusually dynamic electoral campaigning: the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiyev and longtime senior presidential adviser Ali Hasanov. Although allegedly leaving by their own initiative it is widely believed the two were replaced for resisting reforms both in society and in the power structures. Mehdiyev, often referred to as the ‘grey cardinal’ in Azerbaijani politics has been described as the “mastermind behind arrests and intimidation of Azerbaijani civil society”.[7] Similarly, Hasanov was known for his fearsome verbal attacks of government critics. In his capacity of responsible for media relations he was also suspected of heading a government ‘troll army’ used to discredit those challenging the regime.[8] Moreover, the duo is generally believed to have been responsible for ‘managing’ the elections and to this end their dismissal seems to have indicated this time elections might be more ‘real’ rather than a well-choreographed play or game put on by the authorities.[9]

Not Your Usual Suspects: New Players Enter The Election Game

It is characteristic for electoral authoritarian regimes, like the one in Azerbaijan, politics in general and elections in particular are seen as irrelevant to the general public. Everyone knows the government controls the electoral process. The current rulers decide who can run and who eventually wins. Therefore, the only ones who usually care to participate in elections under these conditions are the traditional political opposition parties. They do so because in this context, where freedom of speech, organization, assembly and press is severely compromised, the election campaign is seen as the only opportunity to get sanctioned access to the public and show that there is an alternative to the current rule. In this election Musavat, one of the two traditional opposition parties, as usual participated putting forward candidates in 60 constituencies.[10] A problem with the opposition’s participation in elections is they come across as ‘playing the election game.’ E.g. by taking part in ‘fake’ election, the opposition is likewise deemed ‘fake,’ which has contributed to its poor reputation within society.[11] Perhaps for this reason the other major opposition party, Popular Front, and its allies in The National Council for Democratic Forces, decided just like in 2015 not to participate referring to the lack of “environment for holding free and fair elections.”[12]

Against this background the large number of first-time candidates deciding to join ‘the election game,’ as well as the intensity of their campaigns, was unexpected and potentially important. This outburst of electoral activity includes very different categories of candidates. REAL (the Republican Alternative) – a relatively new opposition party (and still not officially registered as one) has been actively trying to positioning itself, especially during election periods, as something ‘different’ not formally involved with the ‘traditional opposition.’[13] This time they included not only members of the party, but a number of candidates – largely young, highly educated, well-travelled professionals who seem fit the party profile well – participated in the election as part of what was called ‘the REAL coalition’. Another notable group of candidates was those with previous experience of democracy activism in one way or another, for example from civil society and/or social media. Many of them joined forces in a new bloc called Hərəket (’Action’ or ’Movement’). Because of their experience and knowledge of the situation these candidates appeared to be under no illusion they would actually win a seat in the parliament. Instead they took advantage of the opening provided by the snap elections and alleged ‘reform agenda’ much in the same way as the oppositional parties have for a long time – as an opportunity to meet people and ‘get the message out’. However, with the stated ambition to focus on ‘ideas and ideology’ the members of the bloc saw themselves as different from the traditional oppositional actors who, according to them, have only one message – that the corrupt current leaders need to be removed. To this end the candidates in Hərəket did not choose one unifying ideology to promote but instead let everyone go with the individual perspective they preferred whether it was left-wing, libertarian, feminist, environmentalist or something else.[14] In reality the ideological message often had to stand aside for a more general appeal for people to be active and actually going to vote. And, in some cases, even explaining to potential voters how and where they could vote.[15] In addition, another category of candidates allegedly had no previous experience neither within politics nor activism. Still they entered the race with full force, spending a lot of time, money and energy on their campaigns because they believed they possessed the professional and personal experiences requested by the president for renewal of the parliament and subsequent reforms. Interestingly some of these claimed to be certain they could win, which appeared related to first, their belief this time there would be ‘real’ elections and second receiving a ‘signal from above’ saying their competence was needed and should they win there would be no problems taking the seat in parliament.[16]

Spontaneity and Increased Activity as ‘Everyone’ Runs for Election

According to the second interim report by Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (SMDT) one notable difference between the elections in 2020 and 2015 was precisely the number of candidates registered on their ‘own initiative’ had more than doubled.[17] The phenomenon as such is not new – around 40 percent of the MPs in the dismissed parliament were ‘independent’, which in theory meant they did not represent any party while in practice they always voted with the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP). This time this category comprised many more genuine independents, including those running for REAL and Hərəket. One aspect that seemed to facilitate increased participation and activity was the Central Election Commission’s less restrictive approach to the registration of candidates. The most noteworthy case of denied registration was Ilgar Mammadov, head of REAL not allowed to run in the election due to “previous convictions and a non-expunged criminal record.” In general though OSCE described the process as “generally inclusive” with a majority of those who wanted receiving registration.[18]

Another interesting aspect of this increased political activeness is, according to the candidates themselves, it was largely spontaneous.[19] Given the registration period started immediately after the President announced snap elections on December 5 and lasted only until January 10 the time restriction certainly did not leave potential candidates much time to ponder participation. Similarly it did not give long to prepare for the campaign that officially started on January 17, 23 days before Election Day. Not all candidates were actively participating. According to SMDT some 170 candidates did not campaign at all and others conducted their campaign in a “reluctant and uninspiring manner”. [20] It can be suspected these were either sure they would win, or entered to boost the numbers. While this might have been needed in previous years this time there was notable increased political activeness during this campaign period. In fact among certain parts of the Bakuvians everybody knew somebody who was running for parliament. In general the election was more visible, there were more election posters and candidates tirelessly knocking on doors and tried to convince those who opened (which was far from everyone) elections are important. Still, in 36 constituencies the pro-government candidate run unchallenged. Moreover, similar to in previous elections reports by both SMTD and OSCE point to many shortcomings in areas such as voter registration, media coverage, interference by local authorities and abuse of administrative resources. [21]  In short, elections in Azerbaijan can still be seen largely as a game or a play for which the authorities set the rules. There were more independent candidates but their activity was nonetheless dependent on conditions set by those in charge. This became particularly obvious on and during the aftermath of Election Day.

Election Day: Broken Dreams and Controlled Change

Developments of February 9 can be described by the words of former prime minister of Russia, Viktor Chernomyrdin: “we hoped for the best but it turned out as it always does.”[22] This saying well captures the notion of reforms which never actually happened, or did not get the intended outcomes. Election Day left those who expected genuine changes disappointed since as usual voting was marred with gross violations countrywide. Reports by SDMT and OSCE, as well as the testimonies of local observers, describe ballot stuffing, so-called carousel voting, verbal and physical assaults on local observers and tampering with protocols. In some instances local observers were denied access to the polling stations or not allowed to observe the whole or parts of the process. Other commonly witnessed irregularities were web cameras in polling stations being covered in creative ways and ballot boxes not being transparent, as they should have been.

The fact increased participation did not translate into genuine competition was seemingly confirmed by a list published on social media in January accurately predicting the identity of 120 of the 125 deputies.[23] Although the results are not yet finalized it seems of the 80 members of the parliament who sought reelection only a handful did not make it into the new parliament. Of the new MPs 39 are reportedly completely new to the parliament[24] and it seems only one of them, Erkin Gadirli, outspoken member of REAL, is truly representing an alternative, e.g. critical, perspective. Nonetheless, Gadirli’s entry in the parliament was highly anticipated as his name was on the infamous list. Likewise he has made no secret he has been asked to join the parliament by members of the ruling of the elite in a number of previous elections. His (s)election created a virtual storm on social media. Several opposition-minded interpret his acceptance of the post as treason and a blow to those who are trying to fight fraudulent elections. Moreover, his win is questioned and rumors even abound about falsifications in his favor. Yet others insist his presence in the parliament is a victory for democracy activists, in any case, as it will provide a voice of reason and a much needed new perspective. Only time will tell what he will manage to accomplish during his time as MP. However, drawing a parallel to the inclusion of Anna Kanopatskaya in the Belarusian parliament 2015-2019 there are obvious limitations to what the alternative voice of one opposition politician can do. Accepting the position also presents a risk of falling out with the own party.

To conclude, there are many who have reasons to be disappointed after the election. In the aftermath candidates are both formally and publically contesting the fraudulent results and continuing publishing evidence of blunt falsifications. There is no shortage of online videos and photos documenting the flawed electoral process[25] and as of February 14 Azerbaijan’s Central Election Committee (CEC) has cancelled the results in at least four constituencies as a result of some of these images.[26] However, there seems little hope this will make much difference.  Sadly some of the protests against the election results were met with brute force and left young activists injured.[27] Thus, despite indications and hopes to the contrary there was yet again no real election. If in fact related to a power struggle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ forces perhaps the result as best can be interpreted as a compromise. To the extent any renewal of the parliament actually took place it was an entirely top-down process featuring controlled change to ensure the inclusion of “handpicked regime loyalists[28]” pre-selected to embody change.

Epilogue: Same, Same, but Different

For quite some time elections in Azerbaijan have been seen as a ‘game’ played by government and an opposition that is symbolic rather than relevant. Thus, despite being acutely aware democratic standards are lacking in their society the majority of the population simply seem to accept the political status quo – they stay passive, in the belief (true or false) there are no alternatives to existing arrangements.[29] Such ‘resigned acceptance’ ensures the continuation of the authoritarian regime by default.[30] If politics does not matter, changing the government becomes a non-matter and the system is safe for the duration.[31] It is against this background it is promising the talk of reform and renewal at least temporarily lured some other than ‘the usual suspects’ into politics. For the new candidates who are no strangers to working for change online ‘offline’ participation provided a valuable reality check. Even though political apathy among the population is a well-known fact many were surprised by the massive disinterest and distrust they met during door-to-door campaigning. The extent to which the electoral process was manipulated was another surprise for many.[32] In the best case Azerbaijanis at large find elections irrelevant, but unfortunately even more common is the perception being involved in politics – being political – is something unattractive, ‘dirty’ and even dangerous. To this end the popularity of Mehman Huseynov’s electoral participation – first as a candidate in the municipal and later in the parliamentary election is telling. Huseynov, well known because of his video blogging is famous exposing socio-political issues with a twinkle in his eye. Thus, his popularity rests on not being seen as political or a politician. In difference to other candidates Huseynov says he met only positive reactions during his campaign.  “People say in their hearts they are electing me. They know I am not in it for the politics or money or to get a high position,” he explains and continues: “if there was free and fair elections I would win.”[33] Still, the outcome of both his campaigns show he is clearly too controversial to fit the reform agenda.

On the one hand the fact that, yet again, there was no real election is of course disheartening. On the other the increased activity and participation provides a silver lining as it revealed politics are not ‘dead’ in Azerbaijan. In fact the campaign highlighted not only the existence of a range of political ideas, but the presence of a large body of volunteers showing interest in commitment to the political process as they supported their candidates. Importantly, it also appears many of the independent candidates are not discouraged but are already making plans for the future. Keeping in mind ‘change’ is unlikely to happen over night this is a positive sign. Sound, visible, continuous political activity is crucial for countering political apathy by ‘rehabilitating’ politics and making it the natural part of life it should be in a democratic society.

 

[1] https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijans-notorious-ideologue-suffers-precipitous-fall

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/07/azerbaijanis-vote-sunday-here-are-4-things-you-need-know-about-surprising-snap-election/?fbclid=IwAR0UMy9fahT9RxyZMSVOQ2wuXIqh1FEbyYTJ6w4oCXRmc-L2EJnJUELThCU#comments-wrapper

[3] Franke, A., A. Gawrich, A. & G. Alakbarov. 2009. “Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan as Post-Soviet Rentier States: Resource Incomes and Autocracy as a Double ‘Curse’ in Post-Soviet Regimes. Europe-Asia Studies61(1),

[4] https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijan-aliyev-shuffles-security-advisers; https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijan-aliyev-shuffles-security-advisers

[5] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2020/02/05/azerbaijans-snap-election-a-real-contest-or-business-as-usual/

[6] https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijans-notorious-ideologue-suffers-precipitous-fall

[7] https://eurasianet.org/azerbaijan-aliyev-shuffles-security-advisers

[8] https://jam-news.net/azerbaijani-president-fires-countrys-chief-censor-replaces-several-members-of-team/

[9] Author’s interviews with candidates, Azerbaijan, February 2020.

[10] https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3144771472218088&set=pb.100000557981360.-2207520000..&type=3&theater

[11] Bedford, Sofie, and Laurent Vinatier. “Resisting the irresistible:‘Failed opposition’ in Azerbaijan and Belarus revisited.” Government and Opposition 54.4 (2019).

[12] https://oc-media.org/azerbaijan-s-opposition-split-over-snap-election/

[13] Bedford, S. 2015. To Participate or Not to Participate. Electoral Strategies of the Azerbaijani Opposition. Caucasus Analytical Digest 73, Parliamentary Election in Azerbaijan.

[14] https://eurasianet.org/young-azerbaijani-opposition-candidates-have-a-plan-for-that?fbclid=IwAR1RoD1OTuqyf5nTRanorEX-H9n10e5_zbd3MXTtITcQlXH47QDlSNzje48

[15] Author’s interviews with candidates, Azerbaijan, February 2020.

[16] Author’s interviews with candidates, Azerbaijan, February 2020.

[17] Second Interim Report Of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center On the Pre-election Campaign Period 9 February 2020 Early Parliamentary Elections:

https://smdtaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/EMDS-06.02.2020….pdf

[18] International Election Observation Mission Early Parliamentary Elections, 9 February 2020 Statement Of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions:

https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/azerbaijan/445759?download=true

[19] Author’s interviews with candidates, Azerbaijan, February 2020.

[20] Second Interim Report Of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center On the Pre-election Campaign Period 9 February 2020 Early Parliamentary Elections:

https://smdtaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/EMDS-06.02.2020….pdf

[21] International Election Observation Mission Early Parliamentary Elections, 9 February 2020 Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions:

https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/azerbaijan/445759?download=true

[22] “Хотели как лучше, а получилось как всегда”

[23] https://www.facebook.com/hebib/posts/10221888956392843

[24] https://www.facebook.com/hebib/posts/10222011126847028

[25] For those interested there is an abundance of material on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: #sechki2020 #seşki2020 #AZVote2020.

[26] https://oc-media.org/azerbaijan-janjels-elejtion-results-for-at-least-4-jonstituenjies-due-to-elejtoral-fraud/

[27] https://oc-media.org/polije-violently-disperse-azerbaijan-elejtion-protest/

[28] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/07/azerbaijanis-vote-sunday-here-are-4-things-you-need-know-about-surprising-snap-election/?fbclid=IwAR0UMy9fahT9RxyZMSVOQ2wuXIqh1FEbyYTJ6w4oCXRmc-L2EJnJUELThCU#comments-wrapper

[29] Marquez, X. 2016. “The Irrelevance of Legitimacy.” Political Studies 64 (1).

[30] Gelman, V. 2010. “Regime changes despite legitimacy crises: Exit, voice, and loyalty in post-communist Russia.” Journal of Eurasian Studies 1(1), 56.

[31] Bedford, S. “’The Election Game:’ Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus.” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 25.4 (2017).

[32] Author’s interviews with candidates, Azerbaijan, February 2020. See also https://oc-media.org/opinions/opinion-this-elejtion-was-our-first-ok-boomer-to-azerbaijans-politijal-order/

[33] Author’s interviews with Mehman Huseynov, Baku, Azerbaijan, 5 February 2020. During the interview that took part in a shoppong center numerous people stopped by to express support and appreciation for Mehman’s work and candidacy.

  • by Sofie Bedford

    PhD in Political Science from Stockholm University. Researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University (IRES) and a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Vienna University.

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  • Election coverage

    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se