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Democracy Denied: The Outcome of the Azerbaijan Elections

By Ronald J. McNamara
International Policy Director

In 1992, Azerbaijan joined the Helsinki Process, unconditionally accepting all OSCE provisions back to the Helsinki Final Act, including the commitment “to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.”  Consequently, the November 6, 2005 elections for the 125 single-member constituency seats in the parliament (Milli Majlis) – the first held under President Ilham Aliyev – provided an important opportunity for the Azerbaijani leadership to demonstrate its commitment to bringing the country’s election practices into closer conformity with OSCE standards.  Azerbaijani authorities, most prominently the President, had repeatedly proclaimed their intention to hold an election that would meet those norms.

The November 2005 elections were the fifth to be observed by the OSCE, following parliamentary contests in 1995 and 2000, and presidential elections in 1998 and 2003.  According to OSCE monitors, all of these elections have fallen short of international standards.

On election day, Ronald J. McNamara of the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff participated as one of 617 short-term observers deployed as part of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), a joint undertaking of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the European Parliament (EP) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA).  The IEOM also included 30 long-term observers.  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, President of the OSCE PA, was appointed by OSCE Chairman-in-Office as Special Coordinator to lead the short-term observers.  In all, Mission members observed the polling in over half of the country’s 5,053 polling stations and tabulation of results in 90 of 125 constituency election commissions.

A Standard Still Not Met

During the final days of the campaign in Baku, there was an air of guarded optimism among many international observers that the November 6th elections could meaningfully advance democratization, despite all the problems during the pre-election period.  Accordingly, a great deal hinged on what happened on election day itself, specifically the balloting and vote count.

Unfortunately, despite a number of steps taken by authorities at the highest levels, including two presidential decrees, implementation fell short. On the positive side were the more inclusive registration of candidates, including controversial opposition leaders; free airtime on the state-funded media and televised debates; and exit polls.   Shortly before voting day, Baku also lifted its ban on the inking of voters’ fingers, and on domestic observers who received funding from foreign sources.  The Council of Europe and others had long been urging concessions on these fronts.

At the same time, Azerbaijani authorities asserted tight control of all election commissions, including the Central Election Commission.  This was despite calls by the Council of Europe and the OSCE to make them more representative.  Other problems included undue restrictions on the ability of opposition parties to conduct rallies at desired venues, with disproportionate use of force by police against unsanctioned rallies; detentions and harassment of some opposition candidates; lack of uniformity in updating voter lists; and interference by local executive authorities in the election process with impunity.

The IEOM Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued on November 7th noted, “While voting was generally calm, the election day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and, in particular, the tabulation of the votes.  The general atmosphere in the polling stations deteriorated sharply during the count.”

In a telling statistic, 43% of counts assessed by OSCE observers were either “bad or very bad,” with a high lack of confidence in the announced results.  Among the more serious violations observed were tampering with tabulation protocols, protocols completed with pencil, intimidation of observers and unauthorized persons directing the process.  Official protocols reporting the results were not posted, as required by law, in over half of the counts observed.  Violations were also observed in the tabulation process at the constituency electoral commissions.

Influenced by the serious violations observed, as well as problems during the pre-election period, the IEOM concluded, “The 6 November parliamentary elections did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards and commitments for democratic elections.”  Speaking at a crowded Baku press conference the day after the elections, OSCE Special Coordinator Rep. Hastings said, “It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count.”

One Observer’s Perspective

The experience of Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is indicative of much of what transpired in the Azeri elections:

“My observations began on November 6 with the opening of a polling station at a university in downtown Baku, followed by other precincts in the capital and surrounding rural districts.  Throughout the day, at the dozen or so stations I visited, including two military bases, there were an impressive number of domestic observers, most affiliated with individual candidates or political parties.  In nearly every station I encountered voters whose names did not appear on the official voter list posted at each station, including one irate individual complaining that she had voted at the same school all her life but had been dropped from the roster.  Otherwise, the balloting generally proceeded smoothly.

“However, as someone once said, ‘It’s not the people who vote that count — it’s the people who count the votes,’ and unfortunately, most of the officials I encountered on November 6 were the very same individuals who had administered Azerbaijan’s earlier flawed elections.

“The 7:00 p.m. poll closing was accompanied by a dramatic and tense turn of events at the polling station I observed when the precinct election commissioners began moving unused ballots and other materials to an office well beyond the sight of observers.  Amid shouting protests from the dozen or so domestic monitors, I reminded commissioners that all aspects of the closing and vote count were supposed to be conducted in full view of observers.  After a momentary pause, the ballots were retrieved and the count proceeded without further incident.  Aided by a low voter turnout – 30 percent at this particular polling station – the vote counting process moved along rapidly.

“Ultimately, an independent candidate among the 21 people on the ballot won in the constituency.  Subsequently, however, the entire vote in the Binagadi constituency electoral district #9 was invalidated, as also happened in a handful of other districts.”

The Aftermath

 Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback expressed deep disappointment in the conduct of the elections, “We were hoping this election would mark a first step for democracy in Azerbaijan. Leading up to the election, the President of Azerbaijan made technical improvements designed to make the election as free and fair as possible. Unfortunately, the authorities who implemented the election did not pass the test.”  Similarly, Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Chris Smith, said, “The high expectation that the elections would move democratization forward in Azerbaijan has, regretfully, not been realized.”  While Commission Ranking Member, Rep. Ben Cardin observed, “It is not at all clear where Azerbaijan goes from here, but I am not optimistic.”

Considering the international community’s hopes and expectations for significant improvement, disappointment over the November 6 election was all the greater.  It is difficult to see in the conduct of the election any convincing evidence of meaningful progress – instead, the election and its aftermath resemble previous Azerbaijani elections, rather than signaling a significant opening toward greater democratization, including the holding of free and fair elections. 

Since the election, the police have broken up, sometimes violently, opposition rallies.  While Azeri President Aliyev has been willing to engage with the West on the implementation of reforms so long as those reforms do not seriously threaten the status quo, it is clear that Azerbaijan’s leadership is determined to make sure that no “colored” revolution takes place such as those that took place in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine.

A Final OSCE Report, presenting a comprehensive analysis of all observers’ findings and offering recommendations for further improvements is expected to be released shortly.

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