By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
BAKU, Azerbaijan — With an entirely new Milli Mejlis (parliamentary general assembly) set to take office next month, Azerbaijan is bracing for a head-to-toe makeover of its social and political system, in keeping with a master plan laid out late last year by President Ilham Aliyev.
And with most of the newly elected legislators fresh out of Western universities, private sector jobs and positions inside NGOs and other service-oriented organizations (with little, if any, government experience), taking on the job of revamping a parliamentary system that was often marred by corrupt practices and ivory tower isolation, could prove to be a formidable challenge.
Notwithstanding, the 125 new assembly members — voted in on Sunday, Feb. 9, in early elections called for by Aliyev to jumpstart plans to reform and streamline Azerbaijan’s health, social and public service system — bring fresh ideas, youthful idealism and technocratic visions to the Milli Mejlis table, promising to focus on offering more direct and immediate representation to their constituents.
“I think one of the biggest challenges we are going to face as new legislators is not being able to accomplish our goals fast enough to satisfy our constituents,” 30-year-old Kamal Japarov, from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) told Pulse News Mexico on Monday, Feb. 10, the day after his preliminary win was announced by the country’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC), hours after the nationwide polling.
“People are anxious for change, and they want that change to be immediate, but it will take some time to sort through the process and do everything legally.”
Nevertheless, Japarov and his new colleagues are eager to get started, focusing on accountability and transparency.
“There was an unprecedented voter turnout for this election,” said 45-year-old Sultan Mammadov, an independent candidate from the Xazar District of Baku who was also announced as a preliminary winner by the CEC.
“That means we have an additional commitment to get down to the nuts and bolts of the reform as soon as possible. What I want my constituents to understand is that I am not here to fix the natural gas service of the man who lives down the street. I am here to serve all my constituents, to be their voice and to defend their interests on a national level, and to get back to them with a response as fast as I can. That is what accountability is all about.”
Nigar Arpadarai, one of the winning female candidates (21 percent of the total candidates were women, and roughly 25 percent of the winners were women) who, after earning a legal degree and serving a stint in the private sector representing the Formula-1 auto races, ran as an independent, agreed with Mammadov.
“Of course, women’s issues will always be a special concern of mine,” she said. “But I don’t want to limit myself to that. I want the people in my district to know I represent each and every one of them.”
Arpadarai went on to say that the new general assembly has to move past party affiliations and work as a team to benefit all the people of Azerbaijan.
“This assembly is not about political parties,” she said. “It is about issues that are important to everyone, like infrastructure projects and education.”
Calling the snap elections (which were held two months early) a “step forward for the nation as a whole,” 32-year-old Nurlan Kasanov from the YAP said that education was an issue of particular concern for his district, where many young girls did not attend university because there were no local colleges and their families were uncomfortable sending their daughters to Baku or other big cities to live by themselves.
“The solution, in this case, is not scholarships, but opening a university in the region so these students can study and live at home,” he said.
“And since we are talking about a region that is highly agricultural, I think we should look at opening an agro-industry university.”
The lion’s share of the new legislators were educated either in Europe or the United States, and many have classic technocrat visions about how to govern.
“I think sometimes the previous legislators tended to forget that they were supposed to be champions of their constituents’ needs and did not maintain fluid exchanges with them” Kasanov said.
“That is something we need to change with this new Milli Mejlis. As we said, accountability is going to be the hallmark of this new assembly.”