Azeri president moves to modernise parliament with snap election

By Margarita Antidze and Nailia Bagirova

By Margarita Antidze and Nailia Bagirova

BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan holds a snap parliamentary election on Sunday, seen as the next step by President Ilham Aliyev to consolidate power and create a younger, more dynamic parliament to push forward economic reforms.

Aliyev called the election in December, nine months before the vote was formally due. Officials from his ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party said the move was "to support the president's policy on reforms and personnel changes."

In October, Aliyev dismissed his influential chief-of-staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and made other high-profile changes including the appointment of 62-year-old economist Ali Asadov as prime minister.

The president criticised the pace of economic reforms and said he wanted to clear out government officials who had reached pensionable age, a move seen as intended to force out the old guard from the era of his father, Heydar Aliyev.

"I would call this an authoritarian modernisation project," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.

"Old Soviet-style bureaucrats are being pushed out and younger more professional figures are being given top jobs."

Despite its energy resources, the South Caucasus country on the Caspian Sea struggles with unemployment, and many of the 10 million population see little benefit from the oil and gas it produces.

Sunday's election - while not a full democratic contest - will pit veteran lawmakers against young, Western-educated candidates from the same, ruling party in an effort to overhaul the legislature with more able technocrats, analysts say.

But any change will be resisted by the political old guard and wealthy oligarchs.

Voters will choose candidates for 125 seats in the single-chamber parliament, which is elected every five years through voting for individual candidates in electoral districts.

The opposition has accused the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party of misusing government resources for the campaign.

"The election situation in the country does not correspond to the principles of democracy as the ruling party uses the executives for its own purposes," the opposition Musavat Party's leader, Arif Gajily, told Reuters.

A shake-up of the governing elite is not expected to bring any change in foreign policy. Azerbaijan is not aligned to any big regional grouping such as the European Union or the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and its foreign policy is balanced between Russia, the West and Iran.

Aliyev has held power since he was elected in October 2003, two months before the death of his father who held power for a decade. Ilham Aliyev won elections in 2008, 2013 and 2018, and two separate referendums scrapped a two-term presidential limit and extended the presidential term to seven years from five.

He appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva first vice president, the second most powerful post after the president, in 2017.

Western nations have courted Azerbaijan because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe, but various European bodies and rights groups have accused Aliyev of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents. Baku denies the accusations.


(Editing by Ros Russell)