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Azerbaijan - Politics

The political situation of Azerbaijan was extremely volatile in the first years of independence. With performance in Nagorno- Karabakh rather than achievement of economic and political reform as their chief criterion, Azerbaijanis deposed presidents in 1992 and 1993, then returned former communist party boss Heydar Aliyev to power.

The human rights situation in the country remains poor with backsliding in some areas, especially media freedom, religious freedom, and political participation. Restrictions on freedom of assembly, expression, and religion continue, as do arbitrary arrest and detention, and the imprisonment of persons for politically motivated reasons. Over the past few years, political space for opposition voices has become more limited. Arrests and detention for unregistered religious activity continues in some localities. Authorities have destroyed or closed a number of mosques. Corruption remains pervasive, as does the lack of accountability for torture of individuals in detention, violence against journalists, and excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators.

Azerbaijan declared its independence from the former Soviet Union on August 30, 1991, with Ayaz Mutalibov, former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, becoming the country's first President. Following a March 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis at Khojali in Nagorno-Karabakh (a predominantly ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan), Mutalibov resigned and the country experienced a period of political instability. The old guard returned Mutalibov to power in May 1992, but less than a week later his efforts to suspend a scheduled presidential election and ban all political activity prompted the opposition Popular Front Party (PFP) to organize a resistance movement and take power. Among its reforms, the PFP dissolved the predominantly Communist Supreme Soviet and transferred its functions to the 50-member upper house of the legislature, the National Council.

Elections in June 1992 resulted in the selection of PFP leader Abulfez Elchibey as the country's second President. The PFP-dominated government, however, proved incapable of either credibly prosecuting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or managing the economy, and many PFP officials came to be perceived as corrupt and incompetent. Growing discontent culminated in June 1993 in an armed insurrection in Ganja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city. As the rebels advanced virtually unopposed on Baku, President Elchibey fled to his native province, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. The National Council conferred presidential powers upon its new Speaker, Heydar Aliyev, former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party (1969-81) and member of the U.S.S.R. Politburo and U.S.S.R. Deputy Prime Minister (until 1987). Elchibey was formally deposed by a national referendum in August 1993, and Aliyev was elected to a 5-year term as President in October with only token opposition. Aliyev won re-election to another 5-year term in 1998, in an election marred by serious irregularities.

In the 1995 constitution, the speaker of parliament stands next in line to the president. However, constitutional amendments approved in a flawed process in August 2002 included a provision replacing the speaker of parliament with the prime minister in the line of succession to the presidency.

Heydar Aliyev was able to create stability by negotiating energy contracts, making food readily available to the population, and fixing the problems plaguing Baku's public transportation system. The bread lines common during Azerbaijan's early years of post-Soviet independence were no more. He got high marks for providing stability that the citizenry learned to value and allowed for cease fire negotiations with the Nagorno-Karabak conflict and for the development and implementation of some promising economic and democratic reforms.

A presidential election that took place on October 15, 2003 resulted in the election of Ilham Aliyev, the son of Heydar Aliyev. The election did not meet international standards. Ilham Aliyev, the son of former president Heydar Aliyev, assumed the office of president on October 31, 2003. Things started to change when Ilham Aliyev took over the Presidency. Heydar Aliyev died December 12, 2003.

The parliament was historically a weak body with little real influence. Azerbaijan's first parliament was elected in 1995. The 125-member unicameral parliament was elected in November 2005 in an election that showed some improvements, but did not meet a number of international standards. A majority of parliamentarians are from the President's "New Azerbaijan Party." The parliament also includes up to 10 opposition members and a sizeable number of nominal independents. Many of these independents are believed to have close ties to government, while as many as 20 others are business leaders whose political affiliations are not clear.

In 2006, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev repeatedly affirmed his government's commitment to democratic development and political reform. Azerbaijan's human rights record remained poor and the government committed numerous human rights abuses. Government officials increased restrictions on media freedom, most notably by temporarily closing Azerbaijan's leading independent television and radio company, ANS, in late November. The government also opened numerous criminal libel lawsuits against independent newspapers. Journalists, particularly those affiliated with opposition parties, continued to face harassment and intimidation. Two opposition party journalists were physically assaulted, one in March 2006, another in May 2006, by unidentified assailants. In September 2006, a court sentenced a leading political satirist to jail on narcotics possession charges most observers believed to be spurious.

The Government severely restricted the exercise of freedom of assembly, not granting authorization for a single opposition political rally in Baku during the entire year. Unsanctioned demonstrations attempted by the opposition were broken up by police intervention. In November police detained approximately 40 opposition persons, sentencing them to between two and 15 days in "administrative" detention for attempting to hold a protest near the Mayor's office.

On May 13, 2006, Azerbaijan held re-run parliamentary elections in ten districts. As with the November 2005 parliamentary elections, the GOAJ publicly committed to meeting international standards and instituted some reforms. There was some progress in the conduct of the parliamentary rerun elections, specifically improvements in finger-inking, candidate registration, largely unimpeded campaigning, and quick posting of the results on the website of the Central Election Commission. There were large numbers of domestic election observers who participated, including representatives of the Election Monitoring Center. There was consistency between the official results and the results of the U.S. Government-supported exit poll. There were, however, reports of irregularities in the pre-election period, including the misuse of administrative authority in support of specific candidates, as well as allegations of fraud in specific precincts on Election Day. Also, there were reports that some domestic observers were restricted in their access to the electoral process.

Ilham Aliyev won re-election on October 15, 2008, taking 88.7% of the vote in an election boycotted by the major opposition parties. While the presidential election marked progress toward meeting Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commitments and other international standards with regard to some technical aspects of election administration, the election process failed to meet some OSCE standards, according to the final report of the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election monitoring mission. In December 2008, the Azerbaijani parliament approved a measure calling for the abolition of presidential term limits, among other provisions. After limited public debate, the measure passed in a March 18, 2009 referendum on constitutional amendments.

The 125-member unicameral parliament was elected in November 2010 in an election that did not meet a number of international standards. Of the total, 70 elected parliamentarians are from the President's New Azerbaijan Party, 10 are from various other political parties that largely support the President, and 42 claim no party affiliation, but consistently vote with the ruling party. Traditional opposition parties Musavat and the Popular Front are not represented in parliament. The November 2010 parliamentary elections were marred by a deficient candidate registration process, limits on freedom of assembly and expression, a restrictive political environment, unbalanced media coverage of candidates, and problems in vote counting and tabulation.

In 2011, several political protests calling for democratic reform and the government's resignation were forcefully dispersed and 15 protesters were sentenced to 18 months to three years of incarceration for their participation in such protests. Applications to hold protests in Baku were repeatedly denied throughout the year. Local NGOs have reported forced evictions on dubious eminent domain grounds, inadequate compensation, and unclear property registration regulations. Restrictions on the freedom of religion also remain a problem. Corruption remains pervasive in all aspects of society.

Conventional wisdom had long dictated that First Lady (and MP) Mehriban Aliyeva was likely to succeed Ilham Aliyev as Azerbaijan's next President in 2013. She was overwhelmingly popular - perhaps even more so than her husband - and has garnered international attention for her humanitarian and cultural work. However, the idea of extending the presidential term from five years to seven years had been floated several times. According to the Azerbaijani Constitution, extending the presidential term would require a nationwide referendum, for which no one appeared to be making preparations. The government did not seem to be grooming anyone else to take over the Presidency in the near future.

Clashes were expected to grow as antigovernment sentiment mounted ahead of October 2013 elections in which the countrys autocratic leader, Ilham Aliyev, was expected to run for a controversial third term as president. Aliyev has been widely criticized in the West for overseeing a deeply corrupt, oil-fed regime that has systematically muzzled and jailed critics to cement its hold on power.

President Ilham Aliyev's supporters claimed victory in an election 09 October 2013 that was all but expected to overwhelmingly cement his grip on power in the oil-rich former Soviet nation. The head of Aliyev's election campaign headquarters declared shortly after voting ended that the incumbent had secured a new term. "We can express this thought, that Ilham Aliyev has been chosen as the president of Azerbaijan for the coming five years," Ali Ahmedov said. Aliyev, 51, who succeeded his father as leader of Azerbaijan in 2003, had presided over a hydrocarbon boom that has financed the transformation of the capital, Baku, and underwritten an almost tenfold increase in the size of the Caspian Sea nations economy over the last decade. While Azerbaijan has enjoyed growing prosperity, government critics say that full-fledged political freedoms remain a distant prospect and harassment of the opposition was widespread. The leading opposition candidate, prominent academic Camil Hasanli, was not expected to receive more than a single-digit percentage share of the vote. Several exit polls, whose reliability was not immdiately clear, showed Aliyev winning with more than 80 percent of the votes shortly after polling closed.

The presidential election in Azerbaijan was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates, the international observers concluded in a statement released 10 October 2013. 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 shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections, the statement said.

A high number of observers assessed the situation in polling stations on election day as negative, with significant problems coming in the opening, voting and counting procedures. They reported clear indications of ballot box stuffing in 37 polling stations, and the counting was assessed negatively in an unprecedented 58 per cent of the stations observed.

The 2013 presidential election fell short of international standards. In their joint statement of preliminary findings and conclusions on the election, ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly highlighted serious shortcomings that needed to be addressed for the country to meet its OSCE commitments fully. On election day, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and ODIHR observers noted procedural irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, serious problems with vote counting in 58 percent of observed polling stations, and failure to record the number of ballots received.

The ODIHR report noted that, prior to election day, the government maintained a repressive political environment that did not provide the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression necessary for a free and fair electoral competition. Authorities interfered with the media and civil society routinely, sometimes violently interrupted peaceful rallies and meetings before and occasionally during the 23-day campaign period, and jailed a number of opposition and youth activists. Neither the election administration nor the judiciary provided effective redress for appeals. Credible NGOs reported similar shortcomings.

Polls closed November 01, 2015 in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections boycotted by the mainstream opposition and widely expected to cement strongman President Ilham Aliyev's grip on power in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state. The opposition and international rights groups questioned the vote's legitimacy, accusing the government of jailing political opponents on trumped-up charges and limiting parties' ability to campaign. More than 700 candidates from 13 parties and one bloc stood for the 125-seat, single-house parliament to be elected for a five-year term.

President Ilham Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party (Yeni Azerbaijan) retained a clear majority in the 125-member National Assembly in the elections boycotted by the major opposition alliance, the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF). Ten other parties - most of which are reportedly loyal to the President - took a total of 11 seats. Azadliq-2015 (Freedom 2015), a seven-party opposition coalition, and two opposition parties represented in the outgoing legislature - Umid (Hope) and Justice - failed to win parliamentary representation. The head of the Azadliq-2015 election campaign, Mr. Panah Huseyn, rejected the election results. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) did not observe the elections, citing government restrictions. Observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE ) stated that despite some shortcomings, the 2015 elections marked a step towards free, fair and democratic elections.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) cancelled its observation of the November 2015 legislative elections when the government refused to accept ODIHRs recommended number of election observers. Without ODIHR participation, it was impossible to assess properly the fairness of the elections. Independent local and international monitors who observed the election alleged a wide range of irregularities throughout the country, including blocking observers from entering polling stations, ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and voting by unregistered individuals; opposition monitors also alleged such irregularities. The countrys main opposition parties boycotted the election.

Azerbaijan held a referendum on September 26, 2016 on extending the presidential term from five to seven years, a step that a European democracy watchdog said would hand unprecedented power to President Ilham Aliyev. Aliyev, 54, succeeded his father as president in 2003 and can seek re-election indefinitely after term limits were scrapped in another referendum seven years ago.

On 26 September 2016, the government conducted a referendum on 29 proposed constitutional amendments, with voters having the option to vote on each proposed amendment separately. Amendments included provisions extending the presidential term from five to seven years, permitting the president to call early elections if twice in one-year legislators pass no-confidence measures in the government or reject presidential nominees to key government posts. The amendments also authorized the president to appoint one or more vice presidents, designating the senior vice president as first in the line of presidential succession in place of the prime minister, who was approved by parliament.

After polls closed, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) announced that all 29 amendments were approved by 69.8 percent of registered voters. While observers from the Council of Europes Parliamentary Assembly reported the referendum was well executed, independent election observers who were unaccredited identified numerous instances of ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and other irregularities, many of which were captured on video. They also observed significantly lower turnout than was officially reported by the CEC.

President Ilham Aliyev appointed his wife as first vice president, putting her first in line to take over if the president dies or was incapacitated. Aliyev's order naming Mehriban Aliyeva to the newly created No. 2 post was published on the presidential website on 21 February 2017. Aliyeva, 52, was a deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. She was also the head of the Heidar Aliyev Foundation -- a large nongovernmental organization named after her husband's father, who ruled newly independent Azerbaijan with an iron fist from 1993 until 2003. The positions of first vice president and two lower-tier vice presidents were among the constitutional amendments approved in a referendum in tightly controlled Azerbaijan in September 2016.

President Ilham Aliyev claimed victory in the election 09 October 2013 that overwhelmingly cemented his grip on power in the oil-rich former Soviet nation. Ilham Aliyev was elected for a third term by an overwhelming majority of voters (84.54 percent) for the next five years. Once Aliyev is re-elected in October 2018, he will benefit from the September 26, 2016 referendum on extending the presidential term from five to seven years.

The expected date of next parliamentary election was November 2020. The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority was vested in the Milli Mejlis. The president dominated the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

While there were 50 registered political parties, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party dominated the political system. Domestic observers reported that membership in the ruling party conferred advantages, such as preference for public positions. The Milli Mejlis has not included representatives of the countrys main opposition parties since 2010. Opposition members were more likely than other citizens to experience official harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention.

Regional party members often had to conceal the purpose of their gatherings and held them in remote locations. Opposition party members reported police often dispersed small gatherings at teahouses and detained participants for questioning. Opposition parties continued to have difficulty renting office space, reportedly because landlords feared official retaliation; some parties operated from their leaders apartments.

A decree issued by the office of President Ilham Aliyev on 05 February 2018 said Azerbaijan has brought forward the date of a planned presidential election to 11 April 2018 from October 17. Azerbaijan's strongman Ilham Aliyev called a snap presidential vote for April, six months ahead of schedule, as opposition politicians slammed the surprise move. If re-elected in 2018, the 55-year-old Aliyev could extend his rule till 2025.

In 2009, Aliyev amended the country's constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in a move criticised by rights advocates who say he could become a president for life. In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted controversial constitutional amendments, extending the president's term in office to seven years from five. On 11 February 2017 President Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban to the role of first vice president. Voters cleared the way for the creation of the offices of vice president and first vice president in a referendum on Azerbaijan's constitution in 2016. While the position of first vice president is more senior to that of vice president, it is currently unclear what duties 52-year-old Mehriban Aliyeva would undertake.

Aliyev, in power since succeeding his father Heydar Aliyev in 2003, had been nominated as the ruling party's candidate for the election for what would be his fourth term. "Set the date of the election of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan on April 11," Aliyev ordered in a decree posted on his website without providing an immediate explanation for the move. The oil-rich country was initially set to hold the vote on October 17.

"No-one knows what the true reason for calling a snap vote is," political anayst Hikmet Hadjizade said. The decision sparked strong criticism from opposition parties. "The Aliyevs have been in power for some 45 years already and that contradicts the principles of a democratic republic," the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, Ali Kerimli, said. The veteran politician said the decision to hold early elections was aimed at shortening the campaign period and "hampering the opposition's efforts to prevent vote rigging".

So far, two opposition candidates - Musavat party leader Isa Gambar and the chairman of the Classical Popular Front Party Mirmahmud Miralioglu - have announced plans to run for president.

Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe. But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.

"Ilham Aliyev is clinging on to power to continue appropriating the country's riches," Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning journalist and anti-corruption crusader, said. "Practically all of Azerbaijan's natural and economic resources are under the Aliyev family's control," said the journalist who had spent 17 months in jail in 2014-2016.

Azerbaijan is locked in a bitter dispute with Armenia over separatist Nagorny Karabakh region, which has been under Armenian control since it was seized during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia's entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force. The long-ruling president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, took an incredible 86 percent of the vote in the first round of the countrys presidential election 11 April 2018, winning outright another seven years in the post he inherited from his father, Heydar Aliyev, when the elder Aliyev died in 2003. As was typical for the Azerbaijani leader in election years, before the election the constitution was changed, allowing him another, longer term in office (seven years instead of the previous term of five years, while originally no more than two terms as president were allowed). The constitutional shenanigans were combined with arrests of political opponents. Out of eight candidates, six of them were campaigning for Aliyev. Fake opponents were required because the main opposition parties had decided to boycott the election in protest at it being moved forward.

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