Election The result of Azerbaijani parliamentary elections. Dominance of the ruling party under uncertainty

At the moment, there are virtually no signs or signals from the Government of Azerbaijan pointing toward democratic reforms. All international criticism is brushed away as propaganda and the government actively promotes ideas to undermine an international political order where it is regarded as a deviant country lacking respect for the rights of its own citizens.

Published on balticworlds.com on January 7, 2016

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On November 1st, the Republic of Azerbaijan held its fifth parliamentary election since independence in 1991. Members of the unicameral national parliament, or Milli Maclis, are elected for a five-year period, mainly under a single-winner voting system. 25 out of the total 125 seats are elected by proportional representation system. According to the Central Election Committee (CEC) of Azerbaijan, out of a total of 5,2 million registered voters, approximately 55 per cent voted in the parliamentary elections. More than 700 candidates ran for the parliamentary elections, either nominated by their political organizations or self-nominated. While 12 political parties together gained 83 out of 125 seats, independent candidates with no official party affiliation won 42 seats. Despite their independence, the independent candidates routinely vote with the ruling party.

The ruling party, New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), or Yeni Azerbaycan Partiyasi, gained 71 seats in parliament. The remaining 11 parties now hold one seat each, except the Civic Solidarity Party, or Vatandash Hamrayliyi Partiyası, which gained two seats out of the 125 members of the parliament, 27 were elected for the first time.  In other words, the NAP has a completely unthreatened position as most other parties in the parliament have only one seat each and independent candidates do not represent an opposition agenda.

The dominant New Azerbaijan Party

Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB head and a member of the Soviet Union’s powerful Politburo, established the NAP in early 1990s. His son, incumbent president of the republic of Azerbaijan and the current Chairman of the NAP, Ilham Aliyev, took over after his father’s death in 2003. Although the party has no clear ideological orientation, it is considered a center-wing party with a strong emphasis on nationalism. One of the main features of the NAP during the election has been its ability to boost economic growth in the country and maintain political stability. The President has also launched anti-corruption campaigns and made statements on the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Other issues that dominated the political debates preceding the parliamentary elections included policies for job creation, wage increases and investments in education and health care. For the opposition parties, perhaps the most important issues were the status of democracy and corruption in the country. While some of the parties that gained seats in the election can be considered opposition parties, the main opposition parties – Musavat Party and Azerbaijani Popular Front Party– initially demanded a suspension of the election and later decided to boycott it due to undemocratic conditions for candidates from opposition parties. Nevertheless, when it comes to the issue of whether the elections were fair and free, the views diverge.

According to the national media and the CEC, the elections were fairly conducted. In fact, this view was largely shared by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and by some countries. In contrast, other international monitoring organizations as well as Western states, including the USA and EU countries, expressed concern regarding the restricted political environment in Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani perspective

According to the Chairman of the CEC, Mazahir Panahov, most international observers expressed their satisfaction with the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan[1]. Azer Haster, a member of the board of the Press Council, noted that the results were fair due to the popular support for the NAP and president Ilham Aliyev. The Trend News Agency, one of the biggest private news agencies in Azerbaijan, reported that 503 international observers monitored the parliamentary elections and that “following the election, many foreign observers, analysts and experts pointed out the transparency, openness and smooth voting process at the election, as well as high voter turnout”[2]. In the first speech to the newly elected parliament, president Aliyev stated that “the parliamentary elections fully reflected the will of the people of Azerbaijan. The elections were transparent, fair, and were held in an atmosphere of tough competition”[3]. Most interestingly, the President also noted how the election was perceived by the international observers: “the general opinion was that the elections met the highest international standards. The people of Azerbaijan freely expressed their will in these elections. I would like to note the opinions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, CIS and other international organizations. Polls conducted by international organization confirmed the results of the elections”[4].  Indeed, the Chairman of the observation mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – an intergovernmental organization consisting of former Soviet Republics –concluded that no violations of the Electoral Code of Azerbaijan had been recorded, stressing that the elections were transparent. In a special report on elections by the New Europe newspaper, an independent EU affairs newspaper, the elections were depicted in a similar manner, with international observers highlighting the transparency and fairness of the elections. For example, while the member of the Canadian Parliament Percy Downe noted that polls installed cameras, a member of the Polish parliament, Mariusz Antoni Kaminski, said that the Azerbaijani election was  “a typical democratic election” and a Spanish parliamentarian noted that the “elections are going fair and well”. Perhaps surprisingly for some viewers, the day after the elections, the PACE expressed its satisfaction with the election procedure in its statement[5]. The PACE stressed that “the voting process was observed to be adequate and generally in line with international standards. Voters had full and unimpeded access to polling stations and there were no incidents reported by the observers. The observation mission therefore congratulates the Azerbaijani people for their peaceful and orderly conduct during this electoral process”.

The Western perspective

On the other hand, the election has been criticized by major Western states and other international monitoring organizations. Perhaps the most salient case is the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), often considered as one of the leading monitoring institutions in Europe. The ODIHR – which operates within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – planned to monitor the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan but cancelled its mission to observe the mission roughly one month before the Election Day. The reason for this decision was the restrictions imposed by the Government of Azerbaijan on how many short-term and long-term observers were allowed. To be more precise, the initial proposal by the ODIHR was to employ 40 long-term and 350 short-term observers. This proposal was rejected by the Azerbaijani government, which instead proposed 6 long-term and 125 short-term observers.  As a response to these restrictions, the Director of the ODIHR, Michael Georg Link, stated that: “the Azerbaijani authorities’ insistence on a restricted number of observers is directly counter to the country’s OSCE commitments and in contradiction to ODIHR’s election observation mandate”[6].  As a response to this, the Azerbaijani government accused the ODIHR for being unprofessional and questioned the organization’s independence.  The refusal of the ODIHR to monitor the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan has been used by states and international organizations to critique the Azerbaijani government. For example, the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) – a monitoring institution consisting of civil society organizations from Eastern Europe – had 50 long-term and 80 short-term local civil society observers in Azerbaijan. On its website, the EPDE concludes that the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan cannot be considered free and fair due to undemocratic conditions: “the nomination and registration stages of the elections were compromised by the exertion of pressure on candidates and their representatives during the signature collection process, along with the intimidation of voters, who were forced to withdraw their support signatures. Election campaigning was marred by restrictions on campaigning opportunities and the absence of TV debates and free air time, as well as by the abuse of administrative resources in favor of the ruling party and the candidates it supported”[7]. Perhaps more interestingly, the EPDE made note of other monitoring missions “from different countries and international organizations”, stressing that many of them were already positive about the procedure prior to the actual elections. According to the EPDE, these missions are in violation of the United Nations’ Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, since “none of them conducted long-term monitoring”.  Among them, the EPDE singles out the “most prominent election group”, the PACE. In fact, the Human Rights House Network (HRHN) released a statement before the Election Day where it expressed its concern “that PACE’s international monitoring mission will not address the wider cycle of repression in Azerbaijan, that it risks government interference and control, and that it will suffer from a lack of resources and longevity, which will hamper the accuracy of the mission reporting and obscure the broader political situation in the country”[8]. Furthermore, the HRNH notes that the government of Azerbaijan has arrested journalists, prominent human rights defenders and opposition members, and political activists, which is completely ignored in the PACE’s pre-election statement[9].

There is no doubt that the conclusions of the PACE monitoring mission to Azerbaijan has been a peeving moment for some Western monitoring organizations and human rights organizations, while it has been warmly welcomed by the Azerbaijani government. Nevertheless, it appears that the positive statements by the PACE regarding the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan are considered controversial among the PACE’s members, as some of them refused to sign the statement.  According to the HRNH, the PACE’s statement was adopted with 16 votes for and 7 against[10]. Three of the members issued a dissenting statement stressing the highly undemocratic conditions in Azerbaijan[11].  Both the USA and the EU expressed its concerns about the restricted political environment in Azerbaijan. The U.S Department of State urged the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and independent voices, including the media, as part of its international commitments, and to work with the OSCE, including the ODIHR”[12].  Also the EU stressed the importance of cooperation with the ODIHR. It also noted that “one major opposition party did not participate, as it deemed that a level playing field was not guaranteed for all the candidates”[13].

Biased monitoring?

An issue that must be addressed based on these opposing reports of the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan is whether monitoring assessments can be biased. The current research on election monitoring shows that there is a “shadow market” for monitoring organizations that has been created for supporting or being less critical of autocratic regimes’ election procedures. Autocratic regimes are more likely to invite monitoring regimes that are less critical in their assessments. I argue that this explains why the Government of Azerbaijan put restriction on the ODIHR, minimizing the (expected) number of critical monitoring organizations. For an incumbent government in an autocratic state, a decrease in the likelihood of criticism is indeed appealing. This strategy of inviting a mix of international monitoring organizations has been used before by both Russia and Zimbabwe[14]. While some countries, for example Russia and Azerbaijan, are obliged to invite more critical monitoring organizations, such as the ODIHR, because they are members of the OSCE, they also know what is needed to cancel the missions by imposing restrictions. For example, this is exactly what Russia did in the 2008 Presidential Elections. Conceivably, the Government of Azerbaijan observed this and imposed restriction in order to get the ODIHR out of the picture while inviting and citing less critical monitoring organizations.

It is no coincidence that President Aliyev stressed the opinion of the PACE in his speech to the parliament after the elections. Of course, having European observers on his side is a personal gain for him and his regime’s image in international arena. At least, that is how it may be perceived. Of most importance to the regime is that this creates disagreement among international observers, which may be used as a weapon against the opposition and to paint a fictitious picture of democratic condition in the country. In this context, the PACE’s favorable assessment raises some questions as to whether their particular assessment was biased or determined by other factors. After all, the PACE has a good reputation. Judith Kelley’s book Monitoring Democracy provides some insight into the different international monitoring organizations. In a comparison of assessments of international monitoring organizations, the PACE appears to be generally uncritical in its assessments. According to the study, PACE, along with other international monitoring organizations with a good reputation, produces rather ambiguous evaluations when elections are not free or deficient. This explains why the Government of Azerbaijan (and Russia for that matter) was more eager to invite and cooperate with the PACE than with the ODIHR.  Interestingly, while the ODIHR is quite critical in its assessments, the CIS is the least critical of all international monitoring organizations. It appears that the CIS’s main function is to counter criticisms of the ODIHR/OSCE and other monitoring assessments of Western observers in the former Soviet region[15]. Considering this bias, there is no wonder why the CIS’s assessments in general lack legitimacy.

Does monitoring matter in Azerbaijan?

If the Government of Azerbaijan strategically chooses international observers that assess elections in their favor, as I have suggested above, it implies that the government has no serious intentions to conduct free and fair elections. Yet, Azerbaijan does not completely reject international monitoring organizations as, for example, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does. Of course, the main reason for not allowing more critical voices to be heard is the concern that this criticism may spin domestically, resulting in movements directed against the regime. But what if the government allowed international observers to do their work without restrictions?

Perhaps the most pressing question is whether monitoring can improve the democratic conditions in the country. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the opposition leaders in Azerbaijan.  For him, the monitoring was a crucial part – the more observers the better. He was convinced that observers would reduce fraud and deter cheating, if wisely employed. While this may be true or not, it is clear that the Government of Azerbaijan, as most other states, does care about its reputation in international politics and is reluctant to receive international criticism. For example, by issuing a Presidential decree, the government of Azerbaijan made sure to climb in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. Another example is the government’s willingness to put the country “on the map” by hosting Eurovision Song Contest and the European Games. Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani government’s systematic repression of journalists and human rights defenders, and the routine use of corruption charges as a means to discredit political rivals and “unpleasant voices”, indicate that international monitoring may have a limited influence on the government.  In fact, Azerbaijan is one of the countries, together with states such as Angola, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Togo, and Uzbekistan, where repeated monitoring has been found to be ineffective in term of improving the quality of elections.

Monitoring may indeed exert a positive influence and improve elections by increasing the risk for criticism and introducing new norms. Research has shown that the presence of international monitoring organizations is associated with a higher quality of elections and an increased voter turnout. These effects, however, are conditioned on other domestic as well as international factors. For monitoring to be effective in Azerbaijan, there is a need for free domestic organizations and movements – which practically cannot exist today, although there is a great potential in different youth organizations. Another important condition for effective monitoring is the willingness to cooperate with the West. In other words, for monitoring to be effective in Azerbaijan, the country needs to shift from being a single-party autocracy to becoming more West-oriented. To date, Azerbaijan is a single-party autocracy and the cooperation with the West or the EU has not brought any real commitments on the part of the Azerbaijani government to improve the human rights situation.

Future prospects?

What can make the Government of Azerbaijan open up for democratic reform and allow domestic movements to operate freely? At the moment, there are virtually no signs or signals from the Government of Azerbaijan pointing toward democratic reforms. All international criticism is brushed away as propaganda and the government actively promotes ideas to undermine an international political order where it is regarded as a deviant country lacking respect for the rights of its own citizens. The Azerbaijani Government obviously lacks confidence in both international and domestic arena because of the international criticism from the West, making the current political leaders uncertain of their future. Uncertainty and the incorrect judgments by current political leaders in the country leave no other option for the Government than to shut down all kinds of criticism coming from abroad or domestically. The regime’s strength derives from its ability to hold the opposition isolated and marginalized, thanks to the oil revenues.

The future prospects for a more democratic Azerbaijan probably depend on the economic area. As research on trade and democracy has shown, it is not so much trade in itself that makes autocratic regimes more democratic, but rather with whom autocratic regimes trade. The EU is Azerbaijan’s biggest export and import market[16]. Thus, the EU has a potential to support a democratic transformation of the country. The question is if the EU and other Western trade partner’s of Azerbaijan can “talk the talk and walk the walk”?  Many members of the regime today are respected individuals in Europe, owning enterprises and financing fashion weeks. Perhaps this is not the best strategy to persuade the Azerbaijani regime to open up for democratic reforms?


[1] http://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/society/2458125.html
[2] http://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/election2015/2451678.html
[3] http://report.az/en/milli-majlis-2015/parliamentary-elections-reaffirmed-azerbaijan-s-commitment-to-democracy-president/
[5] http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/News/News-View-EN.asp?newsid=5856&cat=31
[6] http://electionswatch.org/2015/09/12/odihr-refuses-to-monitor-azerbaijani-poll-after-government-tries-to-restrict-the-size-of-the-mission/#more-1672
[7] http://www.epde.org/en/newsreader/items/azerbaijan-parliamentary-elections-marred-by-political-imprisonmentviolations-of-freedoms-to-assembly-association-and-expression.html
[8] http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/21197.html
[9] http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/19777.html
[10] http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/21257.html
[11] http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/21257.html
[12] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/11/249109.htm
[13] http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2015/151102_03_en.htm
[14]  See Vladimir Gorovoi (2016) “CIS Election Observer Missions in Commonwealth States.” International Affairs: A Russian Journal of World Politics, Diplomacy & International Relations 52(2): 79–87.” and Anglin, Douglas (1998) “International Election Monitoring: The African Experience.” African Affairs 97(389): 471.”
[15] Gorovoi 2006
[16] http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/azerbaijan/

  • by Faradj Koliev

    Faradj Koliev is a PhD Candidate in political science at Stockholm University. His primary research interests are global governance, international political cooperation, international organizations, and the use of social sanctions in world politics.

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