By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
BAKU, Azerbaijan — When you have a president who has been in power for more than 16 straight years (in this case, Ilham Aliyev), following in the footsteps of his father (Heydar Aliyev), who held the very same post for the 10 years immediately prior to that, it is easy to assume (or suggest) that your head of state was not duly elected.
And when the country in question (Azerbaijan) happens to have a potent next door neighbor (Armenia) that not only occupies a full 20 percent of your national territory, but also wheels a vicious ongoing media campaign to discredit your government in order to distract from the fact that — despite global condemnation of that illegal occupation — it steadfastly refuses to comply with international territorial law and withdraw, then you better be ready to bend over backwards to prove that your country is in fact a democracy and that your government is fairly elected.
And that is exactly why the Aliyev government goes above and beyond normal electoral practices to make its elections as open and transparent as humanly possible, candidly disclosing virtually its entire electoral process for the whole world to see, inviting in international observers from around the globe to bear witness that no unfair or improper practices have taken place.
So as the tiny Caucasian country (with a population of just over 10 million) prepares to host a early election of its Milli Mejlis (national assembly) on Sunday, Feb. 9, a flood of foreign parliamentarians, electoral watchdogs, human rights champions and journalists are flooding in from 58 countries to serve as international observers and prove that whoever wins at the polls does so democratically.
Agustín García Rubio from the Federal Chamber of Deputies, along with two journalists (myself included), are representing Mexico.
In total, Azerbaijan has invited 883 foreign representatives to serve as observers to monitor every aspect of the casting and counting of ballots for election of 125 parliamentary seats, and they will be joining nearly 88,000 Azerbaijani observers from all 24 participating parties, as well as from special interest groups, grassroot organizations and NGOs.
“Basically, any Azerbaijani who wanted to serve as an observer was allowed to register,” explained Panahov Mazahir, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC), during a press conference on the eve of the election.
Vying for the posts will be 1,314 candidates, of whom, 21 percent are women, a figure that seemed to displease Mazahir.
“That is a higher percentage of women than we had in our last parliamentary elections,” he said, “but it is still not enough.”
(It is worth noting that Azerbaijan was the first country in the Eastern world to give women the right to vote, and the first to open an all-girls school.)
Mazahir also noted that only 305 of the candidates are from the country’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party, and although there are no formal academic requirements for running, 91 percent of the candidates have university degrees.
“We are seeing a lot more youth participation in the elections,” he added. “Over half the candidates running are under age 40, and 70 percent are under age 50.”
The massive sea of national and international observers is not the only way that the CEC is working to make sure that the election process is transparent.
High-tech cameras have been installed at about 20 percent of the 5,500 voting stations, and from when the polls open at 8 a.m. Sunday until they close at 7 p.m. that same say, anyone anywhere in the world can log on to the CEC website to watch the process taking place (no password or prior registration required).
Moreover, every journalist in the country has full access to every pre-electoral complaint and subsequent resolution.
The Azerbaijani government has a fulltime budget for the CEC’s operations and commissioners (each of whom are appointed for a 10-year term and cannot be removed from office by any government official, thus ensuring their unbiased independence), and candidates receive no federal funding for their campaigns (are you listening, INE?).
Candidates are responsible for footing the bill for their own campaigns (which officially run for just 23 days, although Mazahir admitted that social media realties make it nearly impossible to confine political stumping to that period) and expenditures are capped at about $320,000 per candidate.
Mazahir said that during Azerbaijan’s last parliamentary elections, turnout was about 55 percent of the country’s roughly 5.3 million registered voters, but because of the snap nature and broader partisan participation of these elections, he expected that turnout this time would be closer to 60 percent.
He also said that early polling results should begin to trickle in late Sunday night.
Azerbaijan’s Milli Majlis elections (generally held every five years) are being held two months early after the legislature was formally dissolved by a presidential decree.
Oh, yeah, and one other thing: There´s a good reason that the Aliyevs keep getting elected. Despite a complicated geographic address and a drop in oil prices, Azerbaijan’s government has for the last decade managed to maintain one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth (with a per capita income of about $17,500) and practically no crime or terrorist concerns.
So when it comes to elections, most Azerbaijani voters seem to follow that old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.