Azerbaijan will hold a snap parliamentary election on 9 February. Arzu Geybullayeva explains that although there is little expectation the vote will be genuinely free and fair, there is a sense that this election could constitute a break with the past given the visibility of new candidates. However, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into real change once voters go to the polls.
On Sunday, 9 February, Azerbaijani citizens will vote in a snap parliamentary election. But only time and an ample amount of documented evidence from the election will show whether their ballots have mattered and whether real political reform is afoot in the country.
There has been much speculation on the real cause behind incumbent president Ilham Aliyev’s December 2019 decree to dissolve the parliament and call for an early election. Some have said the step was needed in order for Aliyev to continue pushing for his reforms, which was not possible under the existing parliament. Others have mentioned the need to modernise the country’s legislative branch or simply to release from their duties members of the government who have reached pensionable age.
But the one cause that has been voiced repeatedly concerns Azerbaijan’s First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, who alongside many political and social responsibilities holds the position of First Vice President. There is a feeling that the time may have come to gradually shift the centre of power toward Aliyev’s wife.
The snap elections
Originally, the vote was scheduled for November 2020, however, amid on-going and loudly applauded reforms – which entered everyone’s lives at the start of last year – the previous parliament’s members felt they were unable to fully support the changes and decided to ask the president to dissolve the national assembly in November of last year. With the approval of the Constitutional Court, President Aliyev signed the decree that released lawmakers from their duties. On the day of the decision, Ali Ahmadov, the executive secretary of the ruling party, explained the decision was a much-needed step in the process of carrying out the reforms supported by the president.
The reform winds began to blow with a cabinet reshuffle earlier in the year and a rise in the minimum wage and pensions. But none of the reforms were really seen as profound and deep changes. At best they could be described as cosmetic touch-ups which reminded pundits of 2016, when the country’s economy tanked.
Ilham Aliyev speaking at the 2019 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Credit: World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
There is also the history of election culture in Azerbaijan to consider, or the lack thereof. Marred by political violations since its independence, Azerbaijan is yet to witness a free and fair election. Until now, the electoral process has been criticised for a lack of transparency, election fraud, and violations that have left the country’s image tarnished on the global stage.
So, what will the overhaul of the current parliamentary composition really lead to? One of the hopes is that the election will bring some new faces into the picture. The previous 125 seat assembly essentially consisted of members of the ruling party, New Azerbaijan, and members in support of the party. But the hope among some candidates this time is to change that structure. Whether they can succeed depends on the transparency of the elections and the willingness of the government to truly foster change and reform.
What’s different this time?
What sets the upcoming snap election apart from the previous ones is the visibility of genuine candidates, who are known among civil society as rights defenders, human rights lawyers, election observers, bloggers, feminists, youth activists, and politicians, to name a few. Some are running independently, while others have joined forces under one bloc, calling itself “Movement”.
Movement is the first of its kind and distinct from political blocs or unions between different political parties. It brings together former and current members of various associations, movements, organisations and parties. As a result, it is a diverse group of people, representing different ideologies and values but standing together under one overarching idea, that it is finally time to change the status quo.
Set up on 25 December last year, just two days after local elections in Azerbaijan, the bloc also includes former candidates such as Mehman Huseynov and Rabiyya Mammadova, who failed to secure seats in local government amidst widely reported accusations of election fraud. Yet, there is hope. Rabiyya Mammadova explained in a recent interview that the intention is “to bring some activity to the new parliament”, adding, “youth can turn the parliament into a working platform”. “There is a general sense of despair among the people about the future of the country, so we are here to give hope”, explains Uvli Ismayil, a member of the NIDA civic movement. Similarly, former political prisoner and popular blogger Mehman Huseynov has stated that the bloc aims to bring a breath of fresh air to the country’s politics.
None, however, have illusions of a free and fair election process on 9 February and so they expect the fight to be long and tough. Already, the signs of pressure are there. According to the most recent numbers, some 300 registered candidates have already withdrawn, dropping the number of total candidates to a little over 1,300. While many have refrained from speaking about their decision to withdraw, some have said they have withdrawn from the race in favour of other candidates.
There is also the issue of public visibility and media coverage. Akif Gurbanli, the head of the independent Institute for Democratic Initiatives and former member of the Central Election Commission, told Azadliq Radio, the Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe, that although some candidates have done due diligence in reaching out to their voters and have held meetings, much of this work is shared via candidates’ social media platforms. None of this work, however, has been covered by the public broadcasters or even the online mass media.
With just days to go until the election, everything rests on the hope that there is still a place for democracy in Azerbaijan and that the country’s leadership will rise to the challenge to show its true colours. Will the government allow a new union to exist or will we see the same politics of loyalty to Ilham and Mehriban Aliyeva? Only time will tell.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Arzu Geybullayeva is a writer, researcher and analyst/consultant based in Istanbul. She tweets @arzugeybulla