By Dr Evangelos Venetis *
The conduct of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan on October 9 was a major development for the country's democratic process. Despite a few shortcomings, these elections were conducted under positive circumstances and with the prospect of further improvement in specific areas.
Despite difficulties during its early years of independence, Azerbaijan through well-counted domestic and foreign policy succeeded in gaining constant economic growth and building up democracy. In this context, the democratic life of the country is a vital element of the political process with elections to be the culmination of the processes of democracy.
To understand to a certain degree the evolution that has taken place in Azerbaijan, we must take into account the political past of the country as a part of Soviet Union as well as its present economic profile. Bearing this in mind, it is possible to compare contemporary developments with those of the past; the result of this comparison is positive for democracy in Azerbaijan today and in the future regardless of any shortcomings.
The first successful attempt to establish a democratic and secular republic in the entire Muslim world was taken in Azerbaijan on May 28, 1918, when the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was established. But this attempt was interrupted after 23 months by the Soviet invasion and occupation of Azerbaijan. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan restored its independence and again opted for a democratic path. But aspirations in this direction cost Azerbaijan dearly: an imposed war with neighboring Armenia which resulted in occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territories and about 1 million refugees as well as internally displaced persons. Besides these war consequences, during its early years of independence Azerbaijan had to deal with internal political instability and economic and social crisis.
Economically, Azerbaijan has achieved significant growth and continues to develop financially. For just the first nine months of this year, the total GDP growth was 6.4 percent and 10 percent in the non-oil sector, while internal investments grew up to 19 percent and foreign investments up to 41 percent. This constant economic growth has social and political dimensions, so, for the last 10 years, expenses for social security and protection have increased nine times, GDP per capita grew seven times, the poverty level was reduced from 44 percent to 4 percent, 1.2 million new jobs were created, and the unemployment rate decreased more than three times. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the country's economic development has had an impact on society and the political process. It could actually be suggested that the economy is a criterion for a significant portion of the political preferences of Azerbaijanis, as these are reflected in electoral and opinion poll results.
Recent elections have consolidated the position of democracy as a key pillar of political life in the country. As an international observer with nongovernmental organizations of the Organization of the Black Sea countries, this writer has visited Baku and had the opportunity to stay in the capital of Azerbaijan and visit a number of polling stations there. The impression about the electoral process on October 9 is related to different areas of the electoral process in its execution and transparency of procedures.
The climate of the election could be described as mild among the candidates and their supporters. The state organization and attitude is considered moderate as far as the conduct of elections is concerned. Azerbaijan has made significant strides toward setting the framework for free and fair elections. In fact, most of the international organizations and bodies observing the last presidential elections deemed them free and fair, among them the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Although the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) joined these organizations in their assessment, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights highlighted certain deficiencies, urging Baku to continue the reforming process. Some experts doubted the ballot count but the results of all exit polls have mostly been in agreement with the official election results. Baku did not exclude the possibility that there were certain violations and shortcomings during the elections. Yet these shortcomings could not cast a shadow on the final results, and should not discourage the aspirations of a young democracy.
This is viewed as a realistic development if one takes into account the progress the country has made in this area. Therefore, an important element in the conduct of the recent elections is the progress made by the country in matters of electoral transparency and organization in relation to the past. This progress is also the basis for the further development of political process in the country. This development is positive and promising in the context of gradual change, which will ensure the existing stability of Azerbaijan's domestic political scene as well as the enhancement of the country as a pillar of geopolitical stability in the Caucasus region and beyond.
* Dr Evangelos Venetis is a research fellow and coordinator of the Middle East Research Project at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).