Azerbaijan’s Snap Presidential Elections Come Under Scrutiny

washington — Azerbaijan is set to hold snap presidential elections on Wednesday, with seven candidates vying for the top position. Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev is widely expected to secure victory, though no official reason has been given for the early election. 

The leading opposition parties, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP) and the Musavat Party, are boycotting the elections, claiming that the vote will not be held in a transparent and objective manner. 

“We should protest Ilham Aliyev’s desire for power for life. He has been in power for 20 years by falsifying elections,” Ali Karimli, chairman of the APFP has said. 

Many local political activists and human rights defenders do not consider the elections credible. 

“There is no democratic election environment in Azerbaijan,” political analyst Nasimi Mammadli told VOA. “In fact,” he added, “freedom of assembly has been banned in the country. There are serious problems with the media freedom. There are problems with the freedom of expression. There are reports of more than 250 political prisoners in the country.”  

According to Seymur Hazi, deputy chairman of the APFP, the elections in Azerbaijan do not meet modern standards. 

“Due to many parameters, it is very difficult to call the process taking place in Azerbaijan an election,” he said. 

The head of the National Front Party, Razi Nurullayev, one of the seven presidential candidates, said it’s not right to criticize the elections without actively participating in the process. 

“Even if the elections are not free and democratic, if you are an opposition party, and if you want to lead the people, you must endure those hardships. You have to see the process with your own eyes, you have to gather experience and you have to join the struggle,” he said. 

The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has issued an interim report detailing the political atmosphere on the eve of the elections. The ODIHR has noted that six candidates participating in the elections have openly supported the president in the past. 

Elections amid pressure on media

The elections come during an increased crackdown on journalists over the past couple of months. At least 10 journalists have been detained since late 2023. Many of the journalists working for Abzas Media, an online media outlet, have been accused of smuggling foreign currency. If convicted, they could face up to eight years in prison. The journalists deny the accusations and link their persecution to investigations into suspected corruption among high-ranking officials in Azerbaijan. 

“In the last three months, there have been numerous detentions and arrests of journalists and managers of several online media outlets, several of which were in the reporting period. This, along with the restrictive nature of the new media law, the prohibition of foreign funding of media, and the country-wide blocking of some major critical media websites, was raised as concerns by several ODIHR EOM [election observation mission] interlocutors,” the ODIHR report said, referring to a 2022 media law. 

Concern about fair elections

The elections follow the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) resolution to suspend the mandate of the Azerbaijani delegation. The organization has cited “serious concerns” regarding Azerbaijan’s ability to conduct free and fair elections, among other things, as the basis for its decision. 

German Member of Parliament Frank Schwabe, in an interview with VOA, said that one of the reasons for PACE’s decision to suspend Azerbaijan was that its monitoring mission was not invited to observe the elections. 

“Azerbaijan not just invited, they organized dozens of election observation missions, which I would call fake election observation missions,” he said. 

According to Schwabe, “the very difficult” situation in Azerbaijan makes it impossible to think of free and fair elections there. 

“The outcome of the elections of the 7th of February are already clear. Everyone knows it,” he said. 

Parliament not observing vote

The European Parliament has also announced that it will not be observing the snap presidential election. 

“The European Parliament will not observe this election process and therefore will not comment on the process or the results that will be announced later,” co-chairs of the European Parliament’s Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG) David McAllister and Thomas Tobe said in a January 15 statement. “No individual member of the European Parliament has the authority to observe or comment on this election process on behalf of the parliament.” 

Authorities claim that all conditions have been created for holding democratic and free elections in the country. The Central Election Commission has said that the presidential candidates have all the opportunities provided by law, including equal opportunities to conduct election campaigns. 

“I can say that all conditions and necessary circumstances exist for holding fair, transparent and free elections in our country,” Chairman of the Supreme Court and Judicial-Legal Counsel Inam Karimov said during his speech at the regional seminar-deliberation held in Baku on January 8. 

The country’s current leader — Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev — has been in power since 2003 and has since won elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018 by a wide margin. According to many international rights organizations, none of those elections was considered free or fair by international observers. 

Constitutional amendments following the referendums in 2009 and 2016 increased the presidential term from five to seven years and removed the limit on the number of terms a president can serve. 

This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service. 

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