Ilham Aliyev takes over
Aliyev worked to clear out the old guard that had served his late father(Heydar Aliyev died in December 2003), including firing Minister of National Security Namik Abbasov, a veteran of the KGB and later head of its Azeri successor. But his government is still dominated, as it was before, by ethnic Azerbaijanis whose ancestors came from Armenia, and elites from the region of Nakhichevan.
Pressure on opposition
The electronic media tends to reflect the government line, while the opposition and independent print media are subject to direct and indirect pressures from the authorities.
The murder of opposition journalist Elmar Husseini, editor of the weekly Monitor magazine, in March 2005 has not been solved.
In May 2005, authorities beat and arrested participants in a peaceful opposition rally in Baku. At least 30 opposition and youth movement activists were arrested and detained for five days. Journalists were also beaten.
In the run-up to the November 2005 parliamentary elections, protestors that gathered illegally to demonstrate support for free and fair elections were forcibly dispersed on a number of occasions. A student activist was arrested on charges of plotting a coup with the assistance of Armenian agents and the U. S.-based National Democratic Institute, and accused of being linked to Ali Kerimli’s Popular Front. Aliyev fired several leading government officials, some widely recognized for corruption, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition and plotting a coup attempt.
A Baku court sentenced two journalists to prison terms for slandering the Minister of the Interior and Head of the State Diaspora Committee. Two journalists were sentenced to prison terms for “inciting hatred” in an article allegedly criticizing Islam. Einulla Fatullayev, the founder and editor of two newspapers, was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for libeling Nagorno-Karabakh refugees.(Fatullayev was finally released by presidential decree in 2011.)
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, visited Baku in May 2011 at the invitation of President Aliyev. During meetings with senior government officials, she called for greater media freedom in Azerbaijan. She offered her office’s assistance in reforming media laws, including the adoption of legislation decriminalizing defamation in line with international standards. Harassment of the media has continued.
Mijatovic also called on authorities to prevent attacks and harassment of journalists, and bringing perpetrators to justice. For example, masked individuals kidnapped Seymur Haziyev, a reporter with the independent Azadliq newspaper, near Baku. They reportedly beat him and threatened him with worse violence if he continued to write critically about government policies. Azadliq, one of Azerbaijan’s main print media outlets, has been the target of repeated attacks and other forms of intimidation, including imprisonment of staffers and contributors. Haziyev himself had been threatened and physically assaulted several times in recent years.
The OSCE Office in Baku and the Azerbaijan Press Council organized a conference on decriminalization of defamation in May 2011, which brought together representatives of the government, parliament, civil society and the media.
2005 parliamentary elections
The 2005 parliamentary elections were the first in which all seats were contested on a single-mandate basis. The New Azerbaijan Party competed mainly against two unified opposition blocs. The Azadlig (Freedom) bloc comprised Ali Kerimli’s Popular Front, Musavat, and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (headed by Rasul Galiyev, a former government official living in Washington and wanted by the Azerbaijani government on embezzlement charges). The Yeni Siyaset (New Policy), or Ye S, bloc, is made up of the National Independence Party, former Communists, and others. Far more candidates ran as independents, many of who were presumed to be linked to the ruling party.
In the voting, marked “by significant deficiencies” according to the OSCE, the New Azerbaijan Party initially won 64 of 125 seats, with Azadlig winning 5 seats, and independent candidates winning most of the rest. Subsequent adjustments by the CEC gave the ruling party 58 seats and opposition parties’ 11 seats, including 7 for Azadlig and 2 for Ye S. When the opposition held protests to demand new elections, Aliyev fired several regional election commission heads, claiming they were responsible for the alleged manipulation of election results.
The OSCE/ODIHR final report on these elections noted that overall they did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other relevant standards for democratic elections.
2008 presidential election
Aliev garnered 87% of the vote, easily winning reelection. The remainder of the vote went to the Azerbaijan Hope Party’s Iqbal Aghazada (2.9%) and several other candidates. Turnout was reportedly 75.64% of registered voters. The opposition—Musavat, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Azerbaijan Liberal Party, and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party—boycotted the election.
The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission’s final report noted that the election marked considerable progress towards meeting OSCE commitments and other international standards, particularly with regard to some technical aspects of election administration. Nonetheless, the election process failed to meet some OSCE commitments. The election may have taken place in a peaceful atmosphere, but was characterized by a lack of competition, the absence of vibrant political discourse, and a restrictive media environment, and thus did not reflect principles necessary for a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election. In addition, the dominant coverage of the incumbent president by the electronic media, as well as instances of an overlap between the ruling New Azerbaijan Party with official structures, did not serve to create a level playing field.
A referendum was held In March to decide on 41 amendments to 29 articles in Azerbaijan’s constitution. The key item up for approval was the lifting of presidential term limits. The opposition asserted that the only purpose of the referendum was to enable Ilham Aliev to remain president for life.
2010 parliamentary election
Aliyev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party won 73 of 125 seats. Other parties aligned with the government won 38 seats. The remainder went to small opposition parties, including Civic Solidarity and Ana Vater. No candidates were elected from the main opposition parties Azerbaijan Popular Front or Musavet.
The OSCE/ODHIR Election Observation Mission’s final report stated that certain conditions necessary for a meaningful and competitive election were lacking in these elections. The fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression were limited and an active political discourse facilitated by free and independent media was almost impossible. A deficient candidate registration process, a restrictive political environment, unbalanced and biased media coverage, disparity in access to resources to mount an effective campaign, misuse of administrative resources as well as interference by local authorities in favor of candidates from the ruling party created an uneven playing field for candidates. Not all electoral contestants were able to compete on a basis of equal treatment by the authorities. Overall, these elections failed to meet a number of key OSCE commitments for democratic elections and important elements of Azerbaijani domestic legislation.”
2013 presidential election
Aliyev reelected, again
Aliyev reportedly won 84.6% of the vote in the October 9 election, with the runner-up from the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces(NCDF), Camil Hasanli, said to have received 5.5% of the vote. None of the other eight candidates won more than 2.4% of the vote. The NCDF's original candidate, Rustam Ibraginbekov, had been ruled ineligible to run due to his dual Azeri and Russian citizenships, and had been replaced by Hasanli in August.
Following announcement of the results, Hasanli called for the election to be annulled due to vote-rigging, electoral fraud, and government control of all the television channels. Some 4,000 demonstrators protested the election results on October 12.
A voter casting her ballot at a polling station in Baku during presidential elections in Azerbaijan, 9 October 2013. (OSCE/Thomas Rymer)
The OSCE International Election Observation Mission's preliminary report stated that the election was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings that need to be addressed for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections.