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Azerbaijan Poll Concessions: Too Little Too Late?

President Aliev has taken steps to ensure a fairer election, but his opponents say it comes too late to create a level playing-field.
By Sevinj Telmanqizi

With only days remaining before voters go to the polls, Azerbaijan’s highly-anticipated parliamentary election continues to produce bitter controversy.


President Ilham Aliev last week stunned observers by allowing significant amendments to the electoral rules which had been demanded by international human rights organisations. He said that these changes would help assure a free and fair election on November 6.


Opposition members called the concessions too little, too late, and international watchdogs are already saying that the contest has been marred by gross violations, and is heavily biased in the government’s favour.


At the same time, a mass withdrawal from the race by more than 400 candidates – close to one-fifth of the entire field – has radically altered the political landscape. Many of the candidates who pulled out were affiliated with the ruling Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party, YAP.


On October 25, Aliev met regional governors and called on them to refrain from interfering in the vote. He also issued a decree allowing local non-government organisations to be present in polling stations to monitor the vote, for voters to have their fingers marked with invisible ink to prevent them casting another ballot, and for officials to issue new identity cards to voters.


Previously, any Azerbaijani organisation which received more than 30 per cent of its funding from sources outside the country was classed as “international” and therefore banned from observing.


International human rights organisations like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the Council of Europe, CoE, had long demanded the changes, while government officials just as steadfastly refused to countenance them.


Marking voters’ fingers with ink is used throughout the developing world – recently it was used in elections in Afghanistan and Iraq – as a means of preventing multiple voting. In Azerbaijan the ink will be invisible but will show up under ultraviolet light.


OSCE and CoE officials welcomed the president’s announcement but asked why it was necessary to wait until just days before the vote to make the changes.


"Our assessment of President Aliev's edict on urgent measures for the holding of the elections is very positive," said Andreas Herkel of the CoE’s parliamentary monitoring group for Azerbaijan. "I do not know why, but decisions on important issues are made at the last moment in Azerbaijan."


Members of the Azadlig (Freedom) election bloc, which unites the three leading opposition parties, saw the changes as a significant but possibly pyrrhic victory.


“This is a result of the unwavering struggle by the Azerbaijani people and the democratic forces for free and fair elections,” said Panah Huseyn, Azadlig’s campaign manager.


However, Huseyn added that more importantly, the government had failed to fulfil a key demand – to divide seats on the 12-member Central Election Committee, CEC, equally between pro- and anti-government forces. While the CEC now has four opposition members as well as four from the government, the fact that the remaining four are appointed by YAP-dominated parliament leads observers to believe it is biased.


Other opposition figures also called the concessions belated, and questioned whether they could be implemented adequately at this late date. They also pointed out that when it comes to marking fingers it is important to know who is checking for the ink, since election staff could choose to look the other way.


“Although there is a decree, there are no guarantees that it will be implemented,” said Sardar Jalaloglu, first deputy chairman of the Democratic Party. “It would also be much better to use visible rather than invisible ink.”


CEC chairman Mazahir Panahov rejects this criticism, saying, “Certain forces have overemphasised the ink issue on purpose, even though there were no grounds for this. The president’s decree has put an end to all suspicions.”


Despite the CEC chairman’s assurances, the OSCE’s Azerbaijani election mission and Human Rights Watch issued reports highly critical of the campaign so far.


In their report, OSCE officials spoke of government interference in the election process, intimidation and mass arrests of opposition members, and difficulties with issuing the new voter IDs.


The OSCE also faulted state-run AzTV television channel which, although it allocated free airtime to the four major political parties as required, devoted 97 per cent of its political coverage to the president, government and YAP. The TV station denied free airtime for the opposition Azadlig bloc altogether for three days during the chaotic aftermath of the failed return of opposition leader Rasul Guliyev, when top government officials were arrested on charges of planning a coup d’etat,


Human Rights Watch officials described the same violations as the OSCE, but added that these “extinguished the possibility of free and fair parliamentary elections on November 6”.


“The government is simply unwilling to allow a free and fair election,” said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director. “We are concerned that this could lead to a bloody crackdown against protesters.”


Ali Hasanov, deputy head of presidential administration, in an interview with IWPR, however rejected the human rights bodies’ findings, saying that President Aliev’s recent decree addressed many of the concerns


“The president took into account all of these criticisms in his October 25 decree,” said Hasanov. “You can see for yourself – the disturbances and disquiet have ended.”


One issue which may have repercussions well beyond election day is the sudden and in many cases inexplicable withdrawal of a huge number of candidates from the race.


To date, some 422 voluntarily pulled out, and the CEC has disqualified another six - from a field of 2,063 candidates.


In this election, the Milli Mejlis will be elected entirely on the first-past-the-post system, whereas previously 25 were assigned by party lists. Since each seat is now contested individually, in some constituencies now multiple candidates from YAP are running at the same time.


Now the party leadership has forced many of these candidates to drop out.


“Yeni Azerbaijan members who became involved in the election campaign as individuals have now put party interests before their personal interests,” said YAP press secretary Huseyn Pashaev. “Those who refused to do so were expelled from the party.”


Observers believe some of the candidates who withdrew were affiliated with wealthy businessmen and politicians whom the YAP leadership feared were trying to build up their own power-base in parliament.


Some analysts think there is a risk that after election day, YAP-affiliated candidates who were barred from running could team up with the opposition and with others who feel they lost because of fraud in their constituency, thus creating a stronger alignment of political forces opposed to the government.


Khidir Alovlu, an independent YAP candidate who was expelled from the race, is one of many who now feels he owes nothing to the ruling party.


“I sacrificed everything for that party when it went through its most difficult times,” said Alovlu. “And now they’ve kicked me out. You call that democracy?”


Sevinj Telmanqizi is a reporter for the Yeni Musavat newspaper.


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