Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Azerbaijan Gears up for Presidential Elections

Published in Field Reports

By Mina Muradova (the 18/09/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On October 9, ten candidates for president will struggle for the votes of almost five million Azerbaijani voters. Observers have expressed doubts over the transparency and fairness of the upcoming elections and increasing pressure on journalists has induced youth and political activists to organize protest actions against the government in recent months. 

The president of Azerbaijan is directly elected for a five-year term by absolute majority. Constitutional amendments in 2009 removed the limitation for a president to serve no more than two consecutive terms. Thus, the incumbent president can run for a third term in the upcoming elections.

Ten candidates are nominated for elections, eight of which are largely loyal to the authorities and not considered serious challengers to incumbent President Aliyev. On September 13, the Central Election Commission (CEC) barred opposition candidate Ilgar Mammadov, a leader of the Republican Alternative (REAL) opposition movement, from running against President Aliyev, who is nominated by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party for a third term. Mammadov was registered as a candidate on August 27, though he has been in detention since his arrest in February on charges of inciting a riot.

“This is a pure political decision and not a decision made by the Central Election Commission,” REAL’s executive secretary Natig Jafarli wrote on his Facebook page and recognized there was little hope that Mammadov’s candidacy would be registered, “…because Azerbaijani authorities are in favor of decreasing interest in the elections and do everything to calm down any political activity related to the elections. If Mammadov was registered, he would be released and give extensive public statements, which would lead to increased interest in the elections by creating a political intrigue within the campaign. The authorities, taking all these aspects into account, preferred not to register his candidacy,” Jafarli noted. On September 16, Jafarli informed via his Facebook page that the board of REAL called on its followers to give their votes to a second opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanli.

Election officials have allowed Hasanli, 61, a historian and former opposition MP who currently teaches Modern History at Baku State University, to run in the October presidential elections. Hasanli is nominated by the National Council of Democratic Forces, established by around 20 opposition parties and groups, and represents the joint opposition as a single candidate. He replaced Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, a famous screenwriter whose works include the Oscar-winning Russian film Burnt by the Sun. The CEC blocked his candidacy, referring to his double citizenship in Azerbaijan and Russia. Ibrahimbeyov requested the cancellation of his Russian citizenship and later accused the Kremlin of deliberately delaying the process as a favor to President Aliyev.

In an address to fellow opposition members in late August, Hasanli stated that, “Today, I believe that the criminal government of Azerbaijan is not only facing the opposition forces, but the whole nation … the authorities finally must feel the strength of the people. The government finally must respect our nation’s voice and return the most fundamental constitutional right back to the people – that the people are the source of the power.”

Incumbent President Aliyev, who came to power in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, is widely expected to be re-elected in the October 9 polls. Observers from various international and local organizations noted a lack of debates and a low level of pre-election activity. A pre-electoral delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued a statement on September 13 statement, saying that the forthcoming election will be held in “an apparently competitive” environment. “At the same time, the lack of credible challengers to the incumbent President has led to the absence of a substantive nationwide debate. Distinctions between the political platforms of would-be opposition candidates are rather vague, the struggle boiling down to a clash of personalities.” A full 32-member delegation from PACE will arrive in Azerbaijan on October 7 to observe the voting.

PACE stressed that its many recommendations, concerning freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the functioning of pluralist democracy, have not been implemented. In addition, the Venice Commission recommendation related to the composition of electoral commissions at all levels has not been properly addressed. “The President’s decision not to conduct a campaign of his own on the grounds that he is well-known by his deeds is disappointing. Furthermore, his frequent presence in the media, while totally legitimate given his functions as the incumbent, puts other competitors at a disadvantage,” according to the PACE statement.

The Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), a local nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization promoting elections, issued an interim report saying that signatures in favor of Aliyev were collected behind the closed doors of schools, hospitals, and other state-funded entities. “We registered a massive collection of personal IDs from employees of schools and their further submission to local governor’s administrations in some districts. We believe that signatures were collected not only in favor of Ilham Aliyev, but also for some pseudo-opposition candidates,” said Anar Mammadli, head of EMDS, and noted that the center also registered that people were induced to give their signatures “in exchange for solutions to their problems by local officials or municipalities.”

Human Rights Watch said in its September report that the Azerbaijani authorities are engaged in a “deliberate” and “abusive” strategy to limit dissent before the elections. “The strategy is designed to curtail opposition political activity, limit public criticism of the government, and exercise greater control over nongovernmental organizations. The clampdown on freedom of expression, assembly, and association has accelerated in the months preceding the October presidential elections,” the report noted. The group also reported a “dramatic” deterioration in the government’s record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association in the last 18 months.


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