October 9 Azerbaijani presidential Elections: Background and Important Issues

Azerbaijanis will head to the polls on Thursday, October 9 for presidential elections. Below is an overview of the candidates and the current election environment in the country.

Who is Running?

The incumbent President Ilham Aliyev, of the New Azerbaijan Party, is running for a third consecutive term. In 2003, Ilham replaced his father, Heydar Aliyev, who presided over the country from 1993-2003, and has remained in power since. Prior to a much-criticized 2009 referendum that abolished presidential term limits, Aliyev would not have been eligible to run in this election.

As noted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s most recent interim report about the elections, Aliyev’s campaign has focused on his administration’s achievements in the areas of economy and security, many of which are also listed in the President’s nomination acceptance address from June 7.

While President Aliyev is running against nine other candidates, only one is significant: Camil Hassanli (also spelled Jamil Hasanli), a historian and former member of Parliament. Hassanli represents a coalition of opposition parties uniting for the first time to challenge Aliyev, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF). Oscar winning writer Rustam Ibragimbekov was actually the coalition’s primary choice, but Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission would have rejected him due to his dual citizenship with Russia.

In an English version of the NCDF’s election manifesto published by the blog Caucasus Election Watch, the NCDF pledges, if elected, to create a better balance of power among the branches of government, to lift obstacles on independent and private media, and to end politically motivated arrests, among other promises.

Recent Election History:

Election Process: Azerbaijan’s previous two elections were in 2008 (presidential) and 2010 (parliamentary). The OSCE reported on both elections and found that neither fully met international standards. OSCE’s reports – including the interim report about the current election – praise Azerbaijan’s progress in “technical aspects of election administration,” but emphasize that there remains “a lack of robust competition, a lack of vibrant political discourse, and a restrictive media environment.”

Democracy and Human Rights: In the past year Azerbaijan seems to have regressed in its democratic development, according to human rights groups and U.S. government sources. During a July briefing on the upcoming elections held by the United States Helsinki Commission, Deputy Assistance Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Thomas Melia stated: “Unfortunately, the political environment for human rights and fundamental freedoms more broadly has worsened since at least last November, when the Milli Mejlis passed amendments significantly increasing fines on participants and organizers of unauthorized protests.”

Competition: Freelance journalist Shahin Abbasov, writing for Eurasianet, argued that this current campaign lacked a competitive environment and opposition, noting that much of the Azerbaijani public seems disinterested and uniformed about the race. The current OSCE interim report also states: “Thus far, the campaign has been characterized by the absence of substantive debate, with a focus on personality rather than concrete political platforms.” The OSCE report in 2008 made similar claims.

However, some believe that the formation of an opposition coalition and the initial selection of Oscar-winning writer Rustam Ibragimbekov display the increased seriousness of the opposition. And while Camil Hassanli replaced Ibragimbekov as the opposition’s candidate, the blog Caucasus Elections Watch claimed that Hassanli took the rare step of directly accusing Aliyev of corruption and embezzlement during a recent television debate, an action the opposition had been prohibited from doing on television in recent years.

Reports of Abuse During the Official Campaign Period:

There have been a number of reports of abuse and intimidation during the official campaign period. For example, following Hassanli’s criticism of Aliyev in the televised presidential debate, he was issued a “serious warning” for insulting the honor and dignity of the president, according to the OSCE. Below are some additional concerns raised during the campaign:

  • The Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) documented the arrest of opposition family members following a political rally.
  • The head of Azerbaijan’s Central Election Committee attempted to restrict election coverage by three international media organizations – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC and Voice of America – arguing that the outlets were attempting to influence voters.
  • Last week, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović called on Azerbaijan to “drop all criminal charges brought against [Ilgar] Mamedov and other imprisoned journalists and set them free.”
  • The European Union’s chief diplomat Catherine Ashton stated on Wednesday that the “EU notes with concern the continued pressure on a number of opposition activists, civil society and independent media, such as intimidations, arrests on dubious charges, detentions and sentencing without proper respect for international standards and rights of the accused.”

U.S. Statements Regarding the Elections:

In addition to Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Melia’s remarks at the Helsinki Commission briefing, the U.S. Embassy in Baku released an official statement regarding the upcoming election on August 5. The statement said, “Azerbaijan should make sure all political parties and interested groups have equal access to the media, the freedom to register their candidates, and the freedom to hold campaign events and regular party meetings in venues across the country without interference.” It also specifically urged, “a speedy, transparent, and fair resolution, pursuant to the rule of law, of the legal proceedings against youth activists, journalists, and political leaders, including Ilgar Mammadov and Tofig Yagublu.”

Moreover, after Azerbaijan canceled the Deputy Assistant Secretary’s pre-election trip to the country in early September, Melia responded, “The Azerbaijani government’s decision to stop our delegation does raise questions about the environment leading up to the October 9 Presidential election.”

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