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Polling station in Bilasuvar, Azerbaijan. Photo: flickr/Matthias Catón
Polling station in Bilasuvar, Azerbaijan. Photo: flickr/Matthias Catón

2008 Presidential elections

As the October 2008 presidential elections neared, there were many signs that they would not be competitive. In terms of resources or ability to mobilize crowds, the opposition parties were weaker then in any past election. The consolidation of power and resources around the governing Yeni Azerbaycan Partiyası (YAP), the years of falsified elections, harassed activists, structural obstacles to free and fair elections – such as the Central Election Commission's government dominated composition - all contributed to a general sense of political apathy among critics of the government. It was widely seen as a foregone conclusion that Ilham Aliyev would be reelected for a second term as President.[1] The distinguishing trait of these elections was the absence of competition.

In the summer of 2008, the Azerbaijan parliament had rejected the Venice Commission and OSCE's Joint Opinion, dated June 2008, stressing the need for parity in the election commissions. Azerbaijan's election commissions remained under control of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Partiyası (YAP), taking decisions with two-thirds majority. As long as this is the case, the opposition argued, "fraud during the counting and tabulation of votes" cannot be prevented.

On 4 August 2008, the day the YAP nominated President Ilham Aliyev as its candidate to run for a second term, the Musavat Party announced it would boycott the elections because of "continued persecution of the opposition, a lack of normal and free conditions for holding an election and restrictions on campaigning." [2] The Azadliq Bloc, an alliance of other opposition parties, had already decided to boycott the elections on 20 July 2008.[3]

Seven candidates took part in the race. Besides the incumbent Ilham Aliyev, they were characterized as "political nobodies."[4] Isa Gambar, chairman of the Musavat Party, who had come in second with 12 percent in the 2003 presidential elections was not a candidate for example.


Election poster of Ilham Aliyev

As the October 2008 presidential elections neared, recent violent post-election demonstrations in Georgia (November 2007) and Armenia (March 2008) cautioned the authorities to take precautions. In Baku, rallies were only allowed in designated places and campaign posters could also only be displayed in designated sites.

Ilham Aliyev's campaign focused on economic growth, though the president did not himself take part in debates- stating he would rather give other candidates more opportunity. The other candidates, according to the report of the International Election Observation Mission, a joint undertaking of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, "commanded little apparent public support, and furthermore mostly lacked national campaign structures to effectively present alternative views to the voters."[5] The same report pointed out that the media gave limited coverage to the campaigns.[6]

Ilham Aliyev emerged as the winner with 88-89 % of the vote. Voter turnout was 75.64 percent. The candidate who came in second was Igbal Agazada – an MP who had supported Isa Gambar in the 2003 presidential elections – with only 2.86 % of the vote.[7] Some of the other candidates did not even reach 40.000 votes, despite having had to collect that many signatures in order to register.[8]

The Constitutional Court judges, each of whom had been presidentially appointed, confirmed the election results, paving the way for the inauguration on 24 October 2008. At the end of the month, Ilham Aliyev appointed the cabinet of ministers, changing only one of the 20 ministers from the previous cabinet.

 

2009 Referendum on constitutional changes  

Soon after Ilham Aliyev's reelection a new development proved even more distressing for the government's critics. In December 2008, the ruling party announced draft constitutional changes. 29 articles of the constitution would be amended, the most important change being the abolition of the presidential term limit. (The constitution limited presidents to two five-year terms). All of the proposed changes would be put to the public in a referendum to be held in March 2009.

AZAD (Azerbaijani Americans for Democracy) held two protest demonstrations in the US. The first was on 30 December 2008 in front of the Azerbaijan's embassy in Washington. The second was in front of the UN building in New York where some 20 protesters chanted slogans and carried signs which read: "No to Monarchy", "Free Media in Azerbaijan", "Save the Republic", and "No King for Azerbaijan." Emin Milli attended this second protest and is visible in the front of the demonstrators in pictures from the event..


Ilham Aliyev casting his vote at the 2009 referendum

The referendum on the 29 constitutional amendments took place on 18 March 2009. Each proposed change was voted on separately.

All of the amendments passed with 87% and 92% vote.

Voter turnout was officially 71%. Ali Akhmedov, executive secretary of the ruling YAP party claimed this high voter turnout was evidence of support of the amendments. Leader of the opposition Musavat Party Isa Gambar said the real turnout was less than 15 percent.[9]

The Azerbaijani blogosphere reacted to the referendum with disgust and, perceiving a complete lack of serious election monitors, the young bloggers took it upon themselves to highlight voting fraud. Ali Novruzov, in his blog In Mutatione Fortitudo, reported,  

"The polling station was completely empty except for Precinct Election Commission members. Even election "observers" were outside chatting, smoking and joking. The lists where voters put their signatures after receiving their ballots were completely empty, except for some random signatures. What drew my attention was the contrast between the completely empty lists and three boxes completely full with ballots. The boxes were so full that I hardly could cast my ballot into one of them. I looked at time – it was 15:45 – empty lists, empty station, full boxes".

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee released a harsh statement on the referendum:

"The Referendum over Constitutional amendments in the Republic of Azerbaijan took place in an atmosphere of intimidation of voters and of all those who opposed the reform of the Constitution". " The hastily called referendum was never subjected to a meaningful public debate, which would have allowed for raising any relevant concerns related to the Constitutional reforms." " By removing the limitation of terms, Azerbaijan is moving away from European governance practices. In Europe, presidency without limitation of terms exists only in the Republic of Belarus, often called ‘the last dictatorship in Europe'".

The last remaining hope in the possibility of democratic transition faded with this referendum. Bloggers expressed dismay and frustration.

 

2010 Parliamentary elections

Parliamentary elections were set for 7 November 2010.

Radio Free Europe quoted political analyst Shahin Abbasov saying "The opposition is weaker than ever, there is no real alternative and no real competition in this election. I think the election's results are predetermined."[10]

Many felt this election would be just like the past ones. The title of an article in Radio Free Europe in 4 November was "Same Procedure As Every Five Years: Azerbaijan Elects A New Parliament."  Human Rights Watch reported the environment in Baku as the elections neared as follows:

"Parliamentary elections are coming up on Sunday, but there is little sign here of the excitement that one would expect. The central public square in Baku, where opposition supporters used to gather, has been turned into a parking lot. The government routinely denies requests to hold demonstrations. Police swiftly and often violently break up unauthorized protests, often arresting peaceful protesters and journalists documenting police actions. (…) With the vanishing space for free expression, the upcoming elections risk the same fate as the fraud-tainted elections here in 2003, 2005 and 2008."


Posters for the November 7 parliamentary elections in Baku

Some argued these elections' run-up was worse then any previous. Gorkhmaz Askarov for example pointed out widespread denial of registration to many oppositional candidates, the shortened 23-day campaign period, prohibition of political rallies during the election period, and the opposition's complete disillusionment with institutions like the Council of Europe.

He explained,

"Unlike the elections of 2000 and 2005 when there was hope in the authority of the Council of Europe, and unlike the elections of 2005, which were imbued with the spirit of the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the elections of 2010 are held in an atmosphere of total depression and lack of hope for any meaningful, positive development in the country."[11]

Some were still trying to get the international community more involved, such as Razi Nurullayev, deputy chairman of the Popular Front Party, who was running as a candidate from AXCH-Musavat bloc. He circulated emails widely, pointing out ongoing violations and calling for ‘much stricter observation.'

The elections were held on 7 November 2010. 700 candidates ran to fill 125 seats of the Milli Majlis. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent more than 300 observers. Official turnout was a low 50 percent.

As Vafa Jafarova put it, referring to the low turnout and addressing Aliyev directly, "Doesn‘t this tell you anything? Read carefully: No one believes you! They don‘t like you! They are only afraid of you! … No dictatorship is forever."[12]

Results of the parliamentary elections of 7 November 2010[13]

Parties

Percentage

Seats

Yeni Azerbaijan Party (Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası)

45.8

72

Civic Solidarity Party (Vətəndaş Həmrəyliyi Partiyası)

1.6

3

Motherland Party (Ana Vətən Partiyası)

1.4

2

Equality Party (Müsavat Partiyası)

1.8

Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (Azərbaycan Xalq Cəbhəsi Partiyası)

1.3

Independents, candidates who did not indicate their party affiliation, others

48.2

48

Total (turnout 50.1%)

100.0

125

Most of the independents are known to be aligned with the government. No candidate from the two leading opposition parties Azerbaijan Popular Front (AHCP) and Musavat won a seat.

ODIHR's final report (25 Jan 2011) on the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan stated that:

"Certain conditions necessary for a meaningful and competitive election were lacking in these elections. The fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression were limited and a vibrant political discourse facilitated by free and independent media was almost impossible. A deficient candidate registration process, a restrictive political environment, unbalanced and biased media coverage, disparity in access to resources to mount an effective campaign, misuse of administrative resources as well as interference by local authorities in favor of candidates from the ruling party created an uneven playing field for candidates. Not all electoral contestants were able to compete on a basis of equal treatment by the authorities as called for in paragraph 7.6 of the OSCE Copenhagen Document. Overall, these elections failed to meet a number of key OSCE commitments for democratic elections and important elements of Azerbaijani domestic legislation." (from the Executive Summary)


[1] RFE/RL article "Azerbaijani Opposition Mulls Presidential Election Boycott" (2 August 2008)

[2] Azerbaijan Opposition to Boycott Presidential Vote, Posted: 08/04/2008

[3] CRS report for Congress: Azerbaijan's October 2008 presidential election: outcome and implications, jim Nichol, 27 october 2008

[4] New York Times article "With a Collective Shrug, Azerbaijan Votes for Its Leader" (15 October 2008)

[5] STATEMENT OF PRELIMINARY FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS, IEOM, Baku, October 16 2008

[6] STATEMENT OF PRELIMINARY FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS, IEOM, Baku, October 16 2008

[7] According to the Central Electoral Commission results dated 19 October 2008.

[8] Qudrat Hasanquliyev and hafiz hajiyev had run in the 2003 presidentail elections.Igbal Agazade and Fazil Mustafayev are MPs.

[9] Azerbaijani opposition challenges voter turnout at referendum, 18 Mar, 2009

[10] "Azerbaijan's Ruling Party Set To Sweep Parliamentary Vote", RFE/RL, 5 November 2010.

[11] Gorkhmaz Askarov, "Six Things You Need To Know About Azerbaijan's Elections", RFE/RL, 4 November 2010.

[12] Vafa Jafarova's blog, – Society, elections, dishonesty – YAPistan

[13] Source: Adam Carr's Election Archive

March 2011

 Back The 2008 elections and the end of democracy - Next 
Is Azerbaijan still a democracy? Does anybody care?
Introduction – A Caspian Democracy   Losing its soul – How the Council of Europe is failing in Azerbaijan
     
A judicial Farce
Generation Facebook on trial
  Places
The country Heydar Aliyev built
     
Oil and Democracy under Ilham Aliyev
Oil and Democracy under Ilham Aliyev
  Baku's dissidents
Baku dissidents
     
Recommended reading   Azerbaijan online resources

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15 March 2011, 00:00