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Eight Parties Barred from Azerbaijani Elections
Eight of the 13 political parties poised to take part in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections have been accused of forging voters' signatures and disqualified from the race.
Government handwriting experts claimed that all eight parties had forged a significant part of the 50,000 signatures required by law to enter the first round. The decision to exclude the offenders was taken by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), which has come under heavy criticism in recent months for its pro-government bias.
Among those disqualified was Musavat, the largest opposition party, which promptly complained to the Appeal Court in Baku.
Musavat had presented 56,000 signatures to the CEC but was disqualified on the grounds that 7,000 of them were forgeries. The party claims that the "fake" signatories included the party secretary Arif Gadzhiev and relatives of the chairman, Isa Gambar.
The Appeal Court, however, referred the case back to the CEC, which upheld its original decision.
Consequently, only four opposition parties will feature in the November elections - the People's Front, which was chaired by former president Abulfaz Elchibey until his death last month; the National Independence Party, led by former presidential candidate Etibar Mamedov; the Party for Civic Solidarity, headed by the poet Sabir Rustankhanly, and the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.
They will lock horns with New Azerbaijan, "the president's party", which is officially headed by Heidar Aliev's son, Ilkham.
Opposition leaders claim this is deliberate attempt by President Aliev's regime to sideline rival parties at this early stage in the electoral race. They argue that the handwriting experts were either state-employed officials or rank amateurs press-ganged by the CEC.
In one region, according to Musavat, the "expert" was, in fact, the director of a local bakery, asked to conduct his analysis for a period of three or four hours.
Similar reports have come from would-be candidates barred from standing in Azerbaijan's single-mandate constituencies. According to the newspaper Ieni Musavat, frustrated hopefuls have included poet and playwright Vagif Samedoglu, the editor of the Sharg newspaper, Akif Ashyrly, Unity Party chairman Yunis Oguz, and chairman of the People's Party and former prime minister Panakh Guseinov.
The build-up to November's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan was the subject of intense debate at the Council of Europe on September 28. Azerbaijan's ongoing bid to join the council will be reviewed only after the election results are clear.
The chairman of the committee of ministers, Umberto Ranieri, stated last month, "Azerbaijan's membership of the CoE is dependant on the authorities respecting the principles of the CoE."
Council members have already noted that the former Soviet republic has done little to democratise the election process, which came under heavy fire from opposition parties this summer.
Particularly galling to Aliev's rivals are the recent reforms to the CEC, which had its membership reduced from 24 to 18, with a third of the new members hailing from the ruling party and third from other government factions.
The government's electoral bill provoked angry demonstrations in Baku in May, when 200 protestors were arrested and another 100 injured by riot police.
Following a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in June, the Azerbaijani authorities agreed to review the bill and free all political prisoners. To date, PACE has been unsatisfied with the results.
Of particular concern to council members is the arrest of Rauf Arifoglu, editor of Ieni Musavat, Azerbaijan's biggest daily newspaper. Arifoglu was charged at the end of August with terrorism, hijacking and illegal possession of a firearm. He has also been accused of inciting his readers to violence against the state.
However, many opposition leaders claim that President Aliev's regime has no real interest in joining the Council of Europe in any case. Rustam Seidov, a leading member of the Social-Democratic Party, said the authorities were intentionally ignoring their obligations as "further democratisation of the country is not in their interests".
Meanwhile, President Aliev himself has been unusually elusive. During a trip to the USA in early September, Aliev reportedly caught a cold and went to a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, for tests - the same clinic where he underwent a heart operation in 1999.
Then, like a clap of thunder on a sunny day, the Russian Internet newspaper, Gazeta.ru, published a report claiming that Aliev had unexpectedly died. Newspapers across Azerbaijan reprinted the article, word for word, adding only emphatic denials from the Azerbaijani embassy in America.
Eventually, the independent ANS TV station managed to reach Aliev by telephone in his Cleveland clinic and the president was able to confirm that rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
Aliev also claimed that the report had been deliberately fabricated by "hostile forces" eager to test the public's reaction to the news. It is an opinion shared by Isa Gumbar, chairman of the Musavat party.
On returning to Azerbaijan, Aliev immediately announced that Russian president Vladimir Putin would be visiting Baku in November, fuelling speculation that PACE's rebuffs may have prompted Aliev to seek a rapprochement with the Kremlin.
This theory is supported by the fact that, on September 20, the Azerbaijani secret services handed over seven Chechen Wahhabis to the Russian authorities - including the brother-in-law of the rebel field-commander Khattab and men suspected of staging the terrorist bomb attack in Buinaksk last year.
Shahin Rzaev is editor of the Impulse newspaper and a regular contributor to IWPR
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