Preparations for the November 1 parliamentary election are in full swing in Azerbaijan. On October 26, the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) closed the registration for election observers, and reported that 465 observers representing 53 countries would monitor the conduct of the election.
But the result will be a foregone conclusion, with the governing New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) certain to once again secure a majority, just like it has done at every election since 1993.
While there could be some rigging of the elections in the notoriously corrupt and dictatorial country, it is hardly necessary at this point, because during his 12-year tenure at the helm of the country, President Ilham Aliyev has stifled and oppressed opposition to such an extent that the ruling party faces little competition.
Besides, opposition voices have been complaining about irregularities and government bullying throughout October, the period when candidates were allowed to register as contenders for the 125 seats in the Azerbaijani parliament, the Milli Majlis (National Assembly). Most of the work to prevent inconvenient candidates from running in the election in the first place has already been done before the polls even opened, further limiting choice and plurality in the country.
Over 5mn Azeris have the right to cast a vote this coming Sunday, to select 125 parliamentarians out of over 1,200 candidates. But that choice is largely imaginary and will bring little in the way of tangible improvements to life in Azerbaijan. The election will most likely bring another landslide victory for YAP, the fifth out of five parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan's short sovereign history.
Mocking election monitoring
"Legal issues that have been the subject of longstanding recommendations remain unaddressed, including the formula for composing election commissions, procedures for candidate registration, and mechanisms for handling complaints and appeals," an August report by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) noted. And while the report recommended that ODIHR send a monitoring team to Baku, in the end OSCE cancelled its delegation because of an inability to agree on the number of delegates - the ODIHR asked for 300, Baku insisted on 125.
"The restriction on the number of observers taking part would make it impossible for the mission to carry out effective and credible election observation," Michael Georg Link, ODIHR's director, complained on September 11.
While Baku has been testy lately, responding in kind to criticism of its human rights record coming from the EU and individual countries, it places a special emphasis on being in the OSCE's good graces, according to Arastun Orujlu, director at the East West Research Centre in Baku, not least because the OSCE is the only international organisation that mediates the peace negotiations with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
"It is important that the OSCE or some other international institutions observe the elections. Otherwise, Azerbaijan might not be invited to participate in different parliamentary assemblies, such as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly or the Council of Europe one. These are important to Azerbaijan not only because of their international importance, but also because of the Nagorno Karabakh issue - the OSCE being the only international organisation involved in the peace negotiations with Armenia," Orujlu tells bne Intellinews. He added that there was a high probability that the results of the parliamentary elections would not be recognised by some countries and international institutions because of the limited presence of internationally-recognised election monitoring bodies.
Baku's comeback to such criticism has been predictable: throwing mud back at OSCE for being anti-human rights, weak and other fabricated foibles; and touting lesser-known observers such as the Seoul-based International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) and the Pakistani Senate as unbiased and experienced international observers that can vouch for the fairness of its electoral process.
In an unexpected last-minute move, however, on October 26 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) announced that it would also send a 30-person delegation to Baku to monitor the election, thus giving more legitimacy to an election monitoring process that was beginning to look like a charade.
"I tried to run for office during the 2010 parliamentary elections on behalf of my home constituency in the Shamkir region. I personally collected 500 signatures from registered voters in my town, some of whom were my own relatives, and went to register with the local election commission, but was told that 85 of the signatures looked fake, and I was not allowed to run," Orujlu complains. "Hundreds of independent candidates are turned down from registering at the local level in the same way I was. And, in some cases, even the Central Election Commission (CEC) intervenes to block potential candidates from running."
The falsity of some of the 450 signatures from registered voters that candidates are required to collect in order to be allowed to run for parliament is reportedly one of the main excuses that local authorities use to reject undesirable candidates. That is, of course, despite the fact that said authorities lack the necessary expertise or jurisdiction to assess whether signatures are fake or not.
Orujlu's complaints are echoed across the ranks of the few opposition parties in Azerbaijan. Arif Hajili, leader of the opposition Musavat Party, complained about this during an October 10 press conference. "Musavat nominated 70 candidates, but so far only 23 have been registered," he said.
He continued by denouncing the harassment of party representatives and supporters. "Our activists have been arrested and abducted. Both the people collecting the signatures and those giving them have been subjected to pressure and harassment. Many people were forced to disavow their signatures. After coercing them into signing statements denying that they endorsed Musavat candidates, election commissions are refusing to register our candidates."
Meanwhile, Mirmahmud Miralioglu, leader of another opposition party, the Classical Popular Front Party, was not allowed to register as a candidate. "We put forward eight candidates, but so far only two have been allowed to register; decisions on the remaining six are pending," Ulvi Hasanli, leader of an opposition youth movement, NIDA, told journalists.
Such practices mean that Azerbaijan's already feeble opposition will have a very poor showing at the November 1 elections. Two large opposition parties, the Popular Front and the National Council of Democratic Forces, have announced that they will boycott the elections, with Musavat, another large opposition party, threatening to do the same.
Under such circumstances, a large percentage of the nominally independent and opposition candidates that were allowed to register will be mere placemen, who will give a semblance of plurality, but who have no political ambition and are acting upon the governing party's orders, Orujlu believes. Once in office, if they are elected, they will vote in support of the governing party, just like the 42 independent members of parliament (MPs) of the outgoing legislative body.
In the current parliament, YAP holds 66 of the 125 seats, while independent MPs hold 42 and the representatives of 10 opposition parties hold a combined 13 seats. Four of the 125 seats are empty. Furthermore "women are underrepresented in public office", ODIHR notes, "holding some 16% of seats in the outgoing parliament and only one of 42 ministerial posts".
A done deal
This year's election is anticlimactic even by Azerbaijani standards, Orujlu believes. "I remember that in 2010 there was more of an electoral atmosphere ahead of the elections," he reminisced. "This year, even educated people - doctors and teachers - are unaware of the fact that there will be voting on Sunday."
Some of the government-mandated opinion polls, such as the one conducted by French market research company Opinionway, indicate a high level of support for the government, but Orujlu gives little credence to such results.
"There is an economic crisis in Azerbaijan, living conditions have significantly worsened since last year, so it is hard for me to believe that 78% of the Azerbaijanis are genuinely in support of the government. But we all saw what happened to the former minister of security, Eldar Mahmudov. If even ambitious ministers are sacked when they contravene the ruling elites, how can we expect normal people to express their sincere opinion about the government?" he wondered. Orujlu was referring to the unexplained sacking of former National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov in October, another incident that speaks to the lack of transparency in political processes in Azerbaijan.
A running joke in Baku has it that elections in Azerbaijan are as free as those in Sudan. That is because the former Sudanese ambassador to Baku said on state television after the 1998 presidential election that, "elections in Azerbaijan are fair and free, just like in my country".
It is a sad state of affairs that the same statements are applicable to Azerbaijan 17 years later, but few believe anything will change until Baku changes the company it keeps and mends its ways. In the meantime, Khartoum will continue to be a closer reference point to Baku than Brussels.