While many of the world’s countries may be democracies, democratic rule is not a prerequisite for legitimacy in today’s international community. The reality that the world, as an international body, does not require democratic governance is one that many in the Western world tend to turn a blind eye. However, there are times when questionable electoral practices make international headlines, and liberal democracies do not have the choice to ignore the lack of free and fair elections among their sovereign peers.
Most recently, Azerbaijan’s presidential election included blatant electoral violations. Anticipating potential criticism, Baku invited a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to monitor the elections. The PACE delegation had thirty-two monitors to oversee the presidential election among an eligible voting population of just under 5 million.
The favored electoral candidate was President Ilham Aliyev, who was running for his third presidential term. A 2009 referendum changed Azerbaijan’s voting rules to drop the previous restriction of a maximum of two five-year terms, a move that paves the way to unrestricted rule for President Aliyev for the foreseeable future.
Current President Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. The elder Aliyev served two terms as Azerbaijan’s president, from the Republic’s inception in 1993 to 2003. Heydar Aliyev is widely regarded as the national founding father in Azerbaijan, and downtown Baku is full of memorials and monuments celebrating his legacy.
As the October 9election drew near, Ilham Aliyev was the clear frontrunner in the race. This came as little surprise, as Aliyev garnered 76% of the vote in 2003 and 87% in 2008. The major opposition candidate was Jamil Hasanli, who was expected to win about 5% of the national vote.
While the general expectation was a blowout Aliyev victory under questionable electoral circumstances, an electronic gaffe made the acceptance of the final results even more difficult for international onlookers.
Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission produced a phone app for this year’s elections, where people would be able to follow the vote counting in “real-time.” Things got awkward however, when the election app published results on October 8, the day before the election actually took place. The results had Aliyev winning with 72.76% of the vote and Hasanli coming in second with 7.4%.
Vusal Isayev, the application developer, has denied the allegations of electoral fraud and claims that “the results were only a test and old information were posted.” Critics, however, has pointed out that the app provided data on Hasanli, who is a new candidate and would not have been included with any old data.
Moreover, election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported the election to be “seriously flawed” and offered allegations of a “restrictive media environment,” voter intimidation, and “clear indications of ballot box stuffing.” The PACE observer mission disagreed, issuing a statement that “overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process.”
Nonetheless, the final election results giving Aliyev 84.55% of the vote seem likely to go without serious contestation. Hasanli ended up with 5.53%. There were some media reports of protests in the days following the elections, but the Azerbaijani police seem to have effectively dispersed domestic protest and restored quiet.
On the international scale, countries have reached out to President Aliyev and expressed their congratulations on his reelection. President Obama’s administration was the exception to the rule, and criticized the election as falling short of international standards. That said, the United States’ comment does not seem to have any impact on the close relationship between the U.S. and Azerbaijan.
Nonetheless, Azerbaijan’s government has taken note of the criticism surrounding the electoral process, and Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States, Elin Suleymanov has responded with an official explanation in the Washington Times.