Azerbaijan existed as an independent country from 1918–1920, becoming the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, prior to absorption into the Soviet Union, which followed a Red Army Invasion in April 1920. In the late 1980s as a result of neighbouring Armenia’s territorial claims and Soviet leadership’s inability and unwillingness to resolve the conflict, dissident political activity began and calls for Azerbaijani independence became vocal. In September 1989, Azerbaijan proclaimed its sovereignty, and declared full independence on 18 October 1991. A new constitution was adopted in November 1995.
The Constitution, adopted on 12 November 1995 in the wake of a referendum, outlines the democratic principals by which the modern nation is governed. Azerbaijan maintains a system of democratically elected government. It adheres to the rule of law, and maintains an open, modern, secular state. The pillars of the new constitution prioritise a government based on the separation of power. As such, the President holds executive authority, the Parliament holds legislative authority, and the independent courts hold judicial authority. It is possible to amend the Azerbaijani Constitution, but the process requires a referendum, via the electorate. Under the Constitution, the franchise is extended to any citizen over the age of 18 years, who has permanently resided in Azerbaijan for more than 10 years. Azerbaijani political structures are flexible and recognise the diverse make-up of the nation. This is exemplified by the exclave of Nakhchivan, which is governed as an autonomous republic. Nakhchivan has its own Parliament, together with a Cabinet of Ministers and Supreme Court.
The Parliament is designed as a modern seat of democratic authority, providing detailed guidance into every major aspect of government policy, including scrutiny through permanent commissions (select committees). Azerbaijan has a multi-party system, and over 40 political parties are currently registered. The main political parties are Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan), Mili Istiqlal (the Azerbaijan National Independence Party), Musavat, Popular Front Party, the Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party, Social Democrats.
Azerbaijan operates a three-tier judiciary system across courts for general jurisdiction, economic matters, the military, and one for serious crimes. These are all Courts of First Instance, and any decisions can be subject to the Court of Appeal. Any complaints about a Court of Appeal decision can be filed with the Supreme Court, which holds the highest judicial power. In recent years, many international standards and the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and other European instruments were incorporated into the legal system. These include the Civil and Criminal Codes, and laws defining the status of the courts and police.
Furthermore, the Constitutional Court is empowered to rule on the constitutionality of laws and dispute settlement, amongst the branches of power. As Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, its citizens are entitled to make submissions to the European Court of Human Rights. Azerbaijan’s adherence to international institutions that can exert power over its own citizenry underlines the determination of the Azerbaijani Government to develop a progressive political system.
As a member state of the Council of Europe (CoE), Azerbaijan welcomes the monitoring of state elections by international observers, including the OSCE and the European Union. In 2005, Azerbaijan introduced the use of voting cards, the publication of voters’ lists, the inking of voters’ fingers to prevent multiple voting, independent exit polls and monitoring of the election by foreign-sponsored NGOs.
The Executive power is embodied in the Office of the President. As the Head of State, he or she represents the country in its internal and external affairs, guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the state, the observation of international treaties, and the independence of the judiciary.
Presidential elections are held every five years. Accuracy of the election results is monitored and confirmed by the Constitutional Court, the process being overseen by more than 500 international observers, mostly from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The Constitution contains stringent measures that help strike a balance between Presidential authority and the democratic right of the Azerbaijani Parliament to oppose decisions made by the Executive. The President must ratify laws presented to him by the legislative body within 56 days. Whilst the President has the power to veto potential legislation, the legislative body can overturn a Presidential veto if a majority of 95 votes in the Parliamentary is achieved.
The President presides over a Cabinet of Ministers, appointed by the Executive to undertake presidential policies and duties. The President is also responsible for choosing a Prime Minister to head the Cabinet of Ministers, but the candidate must initially be approved by the legislature.
The Azerbaijani legislative body is called the Milli Majlis, and comprises a single chamber of 125 Deputies, representing individual constituencies. Any Azerbaijani citizen over the age of 25 years may stand for election as a deputy. The Milli Majilis is elected every five years on the basis of a majority election.
Aside from the legislation, the Milli Majilis reserves a number of significant powers. The Parliament approves the state budget and monitors its implementation, appoints judges to the Constitutional court, Supreme Courts, to the Court of Appeal, and grants authority to the Cabinet of Ministers. The legislature can also dismiss the President through impeachment, based on Supreme Court recommendations.
The development of the Azerbaijani political system since gaining independence is notable for the fact that its institutions have grown in strength, despite numerous international challenges, such as the ongoing so-called ‘frozen conflict’ in Nagorno-Karabakh. Located in an unstable region beset by struggles over energy and territory, Azerbaijan continues to look to the West for support and guidance as a young independent nation and seeks closer political and security relations with Europe and its western allies.