Azerbaijan: Election Changes Spark Anger

Opposition claims legislative amendments are designed to undermine its election campaign.

Azerbaijan: Election Changes Spark Anger

Opposition claims legislative amendments are designed to undermine its election campaign.

Azerbaijani politicians are fighting the first battles of this October’s presidential elections, arguing fiercely over legislation that will shape how the campaign will be conducted.

In its two last plenary sessions, the Azerbaijani parliament, the Milli Mejlis, has adopted amendments to two acts of legislation which will have a direct bearing on the campaign and on how the polls are conducted.

The opposition, which is already facing the prospect of a tough fight against incumbent president Ilham Aliev, who is expected to stand for a second term in the poll, says the changes will undermine the chance of the election being fair. Opposition leaders say they are considering a boycott.

“Sometimes bad amendments are introduced into a good law, but in our case even worse amendments are being brought into a bad law,” said Panah Husein, a member of parliament for the opposition party Musavat.

The first set of changes concern the law on freedom of assembly. It has been changed so that anyone under 18 can only attend a rally with the permission of their parents, a meeting cannot be held without its organisers being present and foreigners resident in Azerbaijan are allowed to hold rallies.

The most controversial amendment is one which will disallow rallies “in the run up to” international meetings in Azerbaijan.

Gudrat Hasanguliev, head of the opposition party, the United Popular Front, says that the phrase “in the run up to” is worryingly ambiguous, as it is not clear whether it means a day, a week, a month or a year prior to the international gathering.

“Maybe I want to demonstrate against this international event,” he said. “Why should I lose the right to do so? Even during G8 summits people get the chance to state their views about their policies.”

Another opposition member of parliament Fazil Gazanfaroglu, said he was worried that the authorities might stop the organisers of a rally attending it, thus finding a legal pretext to declare it illegal.

It’s not only the opposition which is unhappy. The head of the pro-government party Ana Veten, member of parliament Fazail Agamali, disagrees with the amendment allowing foreigners to hold rallies, saying this could be exploited by Azerbaijan’s enemies.

“For example, the Iranian regime, which is not very kindly disposed towards Azerbaijan, could send 200 of its people to our country and give them large amounts of money,” said Agamali. “In their turn, they could find their supporters and hold a protest rally calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Azerbaijan.

“Unfortunately, after the changes in the law they will get a chance to do this.”

Pro-government parliamentarian Ali Ahmedov countered that the aim of the changes was to make Azerbaijan more democratic and that the opposition was only angry because it was losing support.

“In the years 2003-05, Azerbaijan had more mass demonstrations than other countries,” said Ahmedov. “Now the situation has changed and the opposition can’t collect enough people to hold meetings. People have work to do and they have no reason to go out and demonstrate.”

The opposition is even more indignant about the changes to the electoral code passed by parliament. The length of the election campaign has been reduced from 120 days to 75 and candidates for the presidency or parliament are now being denied the free campaigning airtime they formerly had on state television or radio – although they retain it on public television and will be allowed to buy airtime on private channels at commercial rates.

Arzu Samedbeili of Musavat is especially worried about the composition of the electoral commissions which oversee the voting on election-day. She says that a government majority in the commissions will ensure the result is biased and there should be equal representation for opposition and government in them.

“This is needed to maintain balance between political forces and public trust in the election results,” she said. “If there is a majority in the commissions on the side of the authorities, then public trust in the results diminishes. By itself, the refusal of the authorities to form electoral commissions on the basis of parity gives grounds for people to make a negative conclusion on all the proposed changes.”

First deputy speaker of parliament Ziyafet Askerov said that in 2000, at the request of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the commissions had been formed with equal numbers of government and opposition members, but the effect had been disastrous.

“The opposition took the decision to paralyse the activity of the central electoral commission and began to boycott its sessions. Even OSCE representatives appealed to them to attend electoral commission sessions but it was no use. In the end, they had to return to the old format.”

Unlike in some countries – such as neighbouring Georgia – there is no provision for the head of state to stand down during the election campaign.

Daniel Blessington, head of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, one of the international organisations consulted on the amendments, had mixed feelings about the final outcome.

“On the whole the changes in the electoral code have toughened up the legislation,” he said. “There are some points in which the [electoral] code has been improved. But I am critical of several of the amendments that have been brought in and I wouldn’t say that every amendment has served to improve the legislation.”

Opposition deputy Panah Husein said that up until now he had backed the idea that the opposition should contest the election, whatever happens, but he was not so sure now.

“The proposed changes are forcing people like myself to think again and provide additional arguments to people who want to boycott the elections. Taking into account the changes, the opposition ought to review its approach and its tactics for the election,” he said.

Emil Guliev is a correspondent with Day.Az news agency.

Georgia, Azerbaijan
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