Seven of the 125 seats in Azerbaijan’s parliament are now vacant and no one seems in a hurry to do anything about it. The prolonged vacancies are an indicator that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration is not worrying about maintaining a democratic veneer on the country’s authoritarian system.
Azerbaijan has a strong presidential system that includes what is widely viewed as a rubber-stamp legislature. Parliament is packed with pro-presidential MPs, most of them members of Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, along with a smattering of independents. The democracy watchdog group Freedom House in its 2023 Freedom of the World report ranked Azerbaijan’s political system as “not free,” adding that Baku ranked among the “worst of the worst” states in the areas of political rights and civil liberties.
Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan have routinely been marred by irregularities, according to monitoring groups. The last legislative elections in 2020 produced an expected, overwhelming pro-presidential majority, but it also yielded a minor surprise: the Central Election Committee invalidated the results in four electoral districts, citing complaints of fraud. The invalidations came after Aliyev spoke publicly about a need to clean up Azerbaijan’s reputation for dirty elections. “We don't want any violations,” Aliyev said. “Those who committed violations should receive their punishment so that such situations do not happen in the future.”
One way to address electoral fraud is to not hold a vote at all. And this is what has happened with the four invalidated results. No re-run elections have been scheduled in the un-represented districts. Three additional parliamentary vacancies have also opened up over the years: one MP died, another was arrested and expelled, and the third was promoted to a post in the executive branch. No moves have been made to fill those vacancies either.
Azerbaijani legislation seems to require expeditious action to fill parliamentary vacancies. The law on Elections for Parliament calls for re-run elections to be held within three months in cases where original results are nullified.
Back in 2021, CEC chief Mazahir Panahov told journalists that special elections for the vacant seats would be held “in the near future.” But since then there hasn’t been a peep about the matter from administration officials, who seem more focused on external issues, including as Azerbaijan’s prickly relations with Iran and the still smoldering conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. Earlier this year, MP Zahid Oruj said that no special elections are currently planned. The next general legislative elections should be held no later than 2025.
Najmin Kamilsoy, a political analyst in Baku, said widespread apathy with electoral politics is enabling the government’s ability to put off special elections. Campaign season is a time when “political activity comes to life,” he noted. And given that elections have often engendered “international criticisms targeting election fraud, the government doesn’t feel an urge to call for new or repeated elections,” continued Kamilsoy, co-founder and analyst at Baku-based Agora Analytical Collective. “There isn’t much domestic demand.”
A lone vocal voice in calling for special elections is Ilgar Mammadov, chair of semi-opposition Republican Alternative Party (ReAl). He invoked a time-tested rationale for filling the vacant seats: taxation without representation is tyranny. “As parliamentarism is directly related to the tax policy of the state, it is the right of citizens to participate in the disposal of collected taxes by the Milli Majlis [Azerbaijani parliament] through their representatives,” he wrote in a public statement in 2022.
Mammadov’s rallying cry hasn’t resonated much with voters, however. There’s been no groundswell of grass-roots support for special elections. Even some sitting members of parliament seem to question the point of filling the seats, acknowledging the existence of electoral fraud and the legislature’s subservient role in relation to the executive branch.
MP Erkin Gadirli from ReAl, often described as the only opposition voice in parliament, was vilified by pro-government MPs in January after he questioned the validity of the entire electoral process. The parliamentary rebuke followed Gadirli’s interview with blogger Mehman Huseynov, during which he said he could not be sure if his own mandate was legitimate. “There are no democratic elections” in Azerbaijan, he said. Another MP, independent Vahid Ahmadov, received an official reprimand from parliament’s Disciplinary Committee for taking a similar swipe at the legitimacy of the legislature. Ahmadov also called attention to the impropriety of some MPs operating business ventures while being involved in creating legislative frameworks concerning commerce.
Editor’s Note: The following was sent to Eurasianet by Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the Republican Alternative (Real) Party in Azerbaijan, in response to the above article. We attach excerpts of Mammadov’s note below to amplify on points made in the story.
“Let me start with an important correction. Says the author: “Mammadov’s rallying cry hasn’t resonated much with voters, however. There’s been no groundswell of grass-roots support for special elections.”
The author did not mention 1,651 voter signatures collected by our party in 2 out of those 7 constituencies and forwarded to President Aliyev with the call to conduct timely elections. It is not just our Republican Alternative party that made the call – we physically knocked on thousands of doors and collected those signatures in support of it. The fact that the President is still violating the Election Code is an issue which we believe will cost his party votes in the upcoming elections.
The article calls me and our party “semi-opposition.” We are the only party that has voted in parliament against the reactionary laws on media and political parties. We are the party that after 20 years of our country’s membership in the Council of Europe finally managed to split the national delegation’s 6 member vote by 1 to 5 on issues such as political prisoners and democracy in Azerbaijan! We are the party with the largest number of political prisoners recognized by the European Court: 4 of 15 people whose arrest has been recognized by the Court as politically motivated are members of our party. I have been personally excluded from all elections since 2013. The authorities acquitted me only [following] the 2020 general elections in which I still could not run because of a criminal record.
Our courageous fight we conduct under our own names, with honour, and with utmost determination to defend Republicanism in our country.”