An Election - But Only in Name
First, the bare figures: in the presidential elections on April 11, 2018 incumbent Ilham Aliyev was elected into office for the fourth time with about 86 percent of the cast votes. Turnout was 74 percent. This time he was elected for seven years, after two controversial constitutional reforms in 2009 and 2016. In the first reform, he granted himself the opportunity to run for office as often as he desires, in the second he prolonged his term in office by two years and even treated himself to a host of additional powers. Among other things, the appointment by decree of his First Deputy since February 2017 his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva. 5,2 million Azerbaijan nationals were entitled to vote.
These early presidential elections for Ilham Aliyev’s fourth term in his empire were scheduled for autumn initially. However, the president brought the elections forward to April for some nebulous „scheduling problems“. This did not give opposition candidates enough time to prepare for a most certainly doomed to failure competition with the incumbent and his many election mechanisms. Consequently, the opposition parties campaigned for a boycott of the election. So did Musavat, the partner party of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. Its president Arif Hajili said at a press conference after the election: „We do not recognize the election results and request a transparent election.“ The importance of Aliyev’s seven competitors was merely symbolic, culminating in the grotesque behavior of an „opposition candidate“, who according to media reports called upon voters to please vote for the incumbent.
Even before the last votes had been counted, Ilham Aliyev thanked his „dear compatriots“: „In the presidential elections the Azerbaijanis once again demonstrated their enormous trust in me. I would like to express my gratitude to my dear people for this confidence and for this fantastic support. Always have I felt the support of people in Azerbaijan. This support gives me strength. This support is the most important precondition for our development. The unity of people and government forms the core of our development in Azerbaijan. In this election the Azerbaijanis voted for stability, security, development and prosperity, and they appreciate very much what has been done over the past 15 years. We attained this success together with you“. So said Aliyev - and he continued: „We embarked on a decent course, a course of triumphs and successes. I am confident that we will always continue our journey to success. A journey towards new successes!“
The brave new world of Ilham Aliyev
A brave new world, although the Foundation for Freedom shed a realistic light on „the decent course“ of Ilham Aliyev on several occasions already. And it seems that the OSCE observers, too, observed the election in a country that greatly differs from the country the ruling clique in Baku have in mind when they envisage the international view on their country while trying time and again to pretty up the battered image with perfectly staged major events at considerable expenses.
The election observation mission had been invited officially by the government of Azerbaijan. More that 300 long-term and short-term observers served everywhere in the country. They were mandated to check compliance with OSCE- and other international obligations as well as with the standards for democratic elections and national regulations. In parallel, the observers monitored the registration of candidates, election campaign activities, the work of the election commission and the competent governmental authorities, the election legislation and its implementation, the media environment and the settlement of election disputes. The first observers’ judgment, presented in a preliminary statement at a press conference on April 12, was devastating: findings included serious irregularities and also election manipulation.
Scandal during the OSCE Press Conference
It was not easy to follow the press conference of the OSCE election observers from a distance on the day after the elections. The organization had announced a live transmission on its website. First there were sound problems when Nilza de Sena (Special Coordinator and Leader of the Short-Term OSCE Mission), Viorel Riceard Bardea (Head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe - PACE) and Corien Jonker (Leader of the OSZE/ODIHR Observation Mission) took their seats on the stage. It seemed that Nilza de Sena’s first statements about election violations were not to the liking of all those present in the room, and she was interrupted by loud interjections of Azerbaijani participants. According to media reports, several pro-government media representatives shouted, „That is wrong“ and „Stop lying“. Tumultuous scenes erupted - the election observers left the room and the press conference. The live stream was interrupted for almost 20 minutes. After that it continued, this time without any further incidents. The observers came to the conclusion that serious irregularities and election violations had taken place - it was reported that observers had been impeded in the fulfillment of their tasks, and that ballot boxes had been stuffed. The elections, they stated, took place within a restrictive political environment that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. Against this background and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, this election lacked genuine competition. Viorel Riceard Badea did not mince his words in his assessment: “We have to consider that, in a political environment where democratic principles are compromised and the rule of law is not observed, fair and free elections are not possible.” Nilza de Sena pointed to the final report which will be presented in about two months: „I encourage the authorities to take good note of the recommendations ODIHR will make in their final report. We will be ready to assist in this process, if requested by Azerbaijan, and to continue our dialogue on the future development of the country’s democracy.“
Meanwhile, the foreign ministry of Azerbaijan labeled the OSCE report as unfair and not objective. In Azerbaijan, self-perception and external perception are worlds apart - and have been even before these elections.
Peter-Andreas Bochmann is the Project Directoe of the Foundation for Freedom for the South Caucasus.