Editorial: Make or Break? Azerbaijan’s 1 November elections will reveal all.

This is an editorial comment by Caucasus Elections Watch

Caucasus Elections Watch is today starting its coverage of the Parliamentary Elections that are due to be held in Azerbaijan on 1 November 2015. Five million Azerbaijani voters will be asked to vote for 125 members of the Milli Meclis – the country’s unicameral parliament. Voting takes place in single seat constituencies.

A free and fair electoral process is guaranteed by the Constitution of Azerbaijan and by Azerbaijani legislation, as well as by Azerbaijan’s commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Or so it should be! Elections in Azerbaijan over the last decade have however been, at best, problematic. Report after report by credible elections observation missions, particularly those of ODIHR – the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, have consistently flagged up problems, ranging from shortcomings to outright abuse. The conclusion from the sum of these reports leaves one in no doubt that, despite the fact that there have been improvements in the actual organisation of the process, the elections were lacking in many other accounts, resulting in a distortion of the will of the Azerbaijani people as expressed through the ballot box. Following the last parliamentary elections practically all seats were said to have been won by the ruling party, or a party allied to it. It is therefore unfortunate that the same persons who have been in charge at the Central Elections Commission of Azerbaijan in the last decade, and under whose watch the problems of the past occurred, remain in charge for these elections too.

Azerbaijan is a presidential republic, and parliament has a primarily legislative and oversight function. Yet the 2015 Parliamentary elections are now considered as being of vital importance for the country’s future – a make or break political exercise that will seal the fate of the country one way or the other. What is at stake is not only who the members of  the next parliament are going to be, but rather the very essence of what kind of country Azerbaijan is going to be. It is a last chance to reverse the negative slide of the last decade and launch a political renewal that many inside and outside the country had hoped for when Ilham Aliev took over the presidency in 2003.

Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, the situation is much worse now than it was then. For many outsiders Azerbaijan has lost all credibility where it comes to human rights, democratic freedoms and good governance. Whilst problems have been ongoing for a decade, they took a turn for the worse in the last two years, and to be precise since the Presidential elections held in October 2013. Prominent politicians, human rights and civil society activists as well as journalists have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges, or on charges of violating a labyrinth of administrative laws that have been darned in place to box-in anyone who is likely to have a view that is different from that of the government.

It is however the perception inside the country that is by far more important. Here long felt cynicism at the political process in general, is slowly but surely turning into anger at what is seen to be an increasingly authoritarian, incompetent and arrogant system of power. The government on its part points to the undeniable progress achieved in many sectors, and warns of instability. It has accused western governments of trying to undermine Azerbaijan and its government. In this it has been shamelessly nudged on by President Putin and the Russian government who are keen to secure Azerbaijan back into the Russian sphere of influence.

There are those inside Azerbaijan and outside who forcefully argue that democracy in Azerbaijan is a lost case as long as President Aliev and his allies are in power. They criticise the opposition political parties for engaging with the process, and the international community for giving credibility to the elections by monitoring what is an inherently flawed process.

Others however think the situation is more nuanced. They recognise the problem, but they also think that there is still enough diversity of opinion within the Azerbaijani leadership to hope that things may take a turn for the better. Increasingly this last view is being dismissed as naive optimism. However the November 1st Parliamentary elections offer a very tangible test of which view is right. Another disastrously flawed election will very much close the door on any hope of positive change. If on the other hand the elections offer a significant improvement on the past, resulting in a pluralistic parliament where genuine opposition forces are fairly represented, then one can start being optimistic for the future.

Over the next three months, as Azerbaijan prepares to make its choice, we will follow the process on this blog, offering news, insights and comments.

This is an editorial comment by Caucasus Elections Watch. If you want to comment on this article you may do so on our facebook page.