index  |  next>>

Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003

Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, October 13, 2003


Azerbaijan's October 15 presidential elections take place at a time of significant political uncertainty in the country. President Heidar Aliev has dominated Azerbaijani political life since returning to power in 1993, following a long career as Azerbaijan's KGB chief, its Communist Party leader, and a member of the USSR's Politburo. Despite his failing health, Aliev attempted to run in the current elections. In August 2002, the government staged a constitutional referendum that would give him the discretion to appoint his son, Ilham Aliev, as acting president should he step down. Like other votes in Azerbaijan, the referendum was marked by fraud and voter intimidation.2 President Aliev disappeared from public view after collapsing during a public meeting on April 21, 2003, and is believed to be on life-support at a hospital in the United States. In early August, parliament appointed Ilham Aliev, then speaker of parliament, to the post of prime minister. On October 2, 2003, Azerbaijani state television announced the withdrawal of Heidar Aliev's candidacy for president, reading a statement from the president that urged citizens to vote for his son.

President Heidar Aliev consolidated immense power in the presidency and its representatives at the national, province, and local level during his ten-year rule. Other government departments and parliament have only marginal power compared to the presidency. For example, the presidency sends a draft budget with almost no details on spending to the parliament, and in 2001 parliament adopted the state budget after only twenty minutes of discussion.3 In addition, the presidency exercises almost complete control over the State Oil Fund, which falls outside the regular budget of Azerbaijan.

The vast power of the presidency is reproduced at the provincial and local level throughout Azerbaijan through the heads of local executive authorities, "who are appointed by and solely subordinate" to the president.4 At the town and village level, the executive authorities have more power than the local municipal authority. For example, they control appointments to employment in the state sector, which accounts for the vast majority of jobs in Azerbaijan.5 As this report documents, it is these executive authorities that are most directly involved in frustrating the efforts of opposition activists at the local level.

One of the reasons why local executive authorities and many other government officials have been so vehement in their support for the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (New Azerbaijan Party or YAP) and its candidate Ilham Aliev is that they believe their own job security depends on its continued rule. With its high unemployment levels, loyalty to the ruling party is often a requirement for many types of employment in Azerbaijan, particularly for government positions. As most government appointments are directly controlled by the presidency, many government officials fear losing their livelihood in case of a victory by the opposition-many of whose supporters are currently unemployed in part because of job discrimination by the ruling party.

This consolidation of power shields the government from effective parliamentary or judicial scrutiny. The government escapes more broad public accountability because since gaining independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has never had a free and fair election. The last elections conducted in Azerbaijan, the 2000 parliamentary elections, were marred by widespread manipulation by governmental authorities, intimidation of the opposition, significant police abuse, and massive fraud on election day. They were declared as falling far short of international standards by international observers from the OSCE, the National Democratic Institute, and Human Rights Watch.6 OSCE/ODHIR described the 2000 Parliamentary elections as "a crash course in the different methodologies of manipulation."7

Many of the election violations observed in previous elections are recurring with the same intensity in the current election period. The Azerbaijani authorities have fully mobilized in support of the candidacy of Ilham Aliev, and are waging a campaign of bureaucratic interference and political intimidation against the opposition, making a free and fair pre-election campaign environment impossible.

2 National Democratic Institute, Azerbaijan Presidential Elections 2003 Election Watch Report One, September 15, 2003.

3 Caspian Revenue Watch, Caspian Oil Revenues: Who will Benefit? (New York: Open Society Institute, 2003), p. 99.

4 International Foundation for Electoral Systems, Summary Description of the Division of Powers between Municipalities and State Local Executive Authorities, November 2002.

5 Statistics from 1998 indicate that the state sector accounted for nearly half the jobs in Azerbaijan. See Joint ECE Eurostat-ILO Seminar on Measurement of the Quality of Employment, CES/SEM.41/24, March 1, 2000,, retrieved October 8, 2003.

6 OSCE ODHIR International Observer Mission, Republic of Azerbaijan, Election to the Milli Majlis, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Baku, November 6, 2000; Statement of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) International Observer Delegation to Azerbaijan's November 5, 2000 Parliamentary Elections, Baku, November 7, 2000; Human Rights Watch, "Azerbaijani Parliamentary Elections Manipulated," A Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, November 2000; Human Rights Watch, "Azerbaijani Parliamentary Elections Manipulated," A Human Rights Watch Memorandum, December 29, 2000.

7 OSCE ODIHR, Republic of Azerbaijan, Parliamentary Elections, 5 November 2000 and 7 January 2001, Final Report.

index  |  next>>

October 13, 2003