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Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election
The Outcome Was Never in Doubt
Thursday, May 31, 2018

On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018. 

While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election.

The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent.

Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints. 

Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan.


By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
and Jordan Warlick, Office Director

Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access

From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion.

For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win.

Candidates for President of Azerbaijan | April 2018During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency.

Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained.

Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners. 

One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister.

Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations.

Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers. 

A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.”

Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book

Voting in Progress | Azerbaijan Elections | April 2018On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m.

The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail.

While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely.

One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand. 

Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands.

Citizen “Observers” in Name Only

During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible. 

We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped.

The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin

While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed. 

Vote tallying | Azerbaijan Elections | April 2018For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process.

Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles. 

We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled. 

One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place.

In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities. 

We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent.

Election Aftermath

In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.”

“Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said.

The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures.

At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently.

Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.”

The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement.

“A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

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We must speak up in the strongest possible way and hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions and that is what we did here.” Co-Chairman Smith received overwhelming support for his resolution on efforts to combat child sex trafficking. As the Assembly’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking, Smith’s initiative pressed for the formation of a notification system among countries regarding the travel of persons convicted of sex crimes against children, as well as increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and with the travel industry to prevent child sex tourism. “This resolution provides a tool to mitigate the horrific abuse of children by sexual tourism,” said Smith. “These predators thrive on secrecy, and so the goal is advance notification of sex offender travel so that children can be protected.” In addition to Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Smith, the delegation included Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt(R-AL), Commissioner Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The U.S. delegation fielded two of the 18 resolutions considered at the annual session, as well as a total of 19 amendments to several of these resolutions. In an initiative related to Chairman Cardin’s Ukraine resolution, Senator Wicker introduced language adopted by the Assembly recognizing the importance of the OSCE’s military observation missions, including the inspections in Ukraine.  Senator Wicker also participated in a dialogue with fellow parliamentarians on OSCE engagement with partner country Afghanistan. Senator Tom Harkin successfully offered amendments calling for access and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities, including calling for the ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by all OSCE participating States. Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt achieved passage of language supporting the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU and NATO, and, in a separate initiative, highlighted the plight of “disappeared” political prisoners in Turkmenistan and called on that government to finally come clean on the fate of these individuals, one of whom was a former OSCE ambassador. An initiative by Rep. David Schweikert encouraged increased outreach by the OSCE to Mediterranean Partner countries, while Rep. Phil Gingrey brokered an agreement calling for concrete steps to promote clean and affordable energy. Finally, Rep. Smith and Senator Cardin joined an initiative with the Canadian delegation to respond more vigorously to acts of anti-Semitism throughout the participating States. On July 2 the meeting concluded with the adoption of the Baku Declaration, containing broad policy recommendations for the OSCE and its 57 participating States in the fields of political affairs and military security, trade, the environment and human rights. While in Azerbaijan, the delegation also held bilateral meetings with the Government of Azerbaijan, including meeting with President Ilham Aliyev as well as representatives of civil society fighting for media freedom, rule of law and disability rights in Azerbaijan. Bilateral meetings in Georgia and Moldova In addition to attending the OSCE PA’s Annual Session in Azerbaijan, Chairman Cardin led the delegation to stops in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Chisinau, Moldova, for bilateral meetings to discuss expanded ties with the United States as well as regional security in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. In Georgia the delegation met with the President, Prime Minister, and the leadership of the United National Movement opposition party offering U.S. support and encouraging further democratic reforms, particularly in building a robust and independent judiciary free from corruption and untainted by politically-motivated prosecutions. In Moldova, the delegation met with the Prime Minister and key political leaders across the spectrum on the day the national parliament ratified an historic agreement with the European Union. The delegation also held consultations with the leadership of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, representatives of civil society, and the U.S. Embassy.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on OSCE Mediterranean Partners

    WASHINGTON - Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Political Pluralism in the OSCE Mediterranean Partners? Wednesday, July 9, 2014 10:00 am U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 203/202 The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) have cooperated closely through tangible projects, expertise exchanges, election assistance, conferences, and rich dialogue to advance human security with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation – Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. A hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will serve as an opportunity to take stock of political developments among the Mediterranean Partners in the years following the popular uprisings that began in late 2010, now often referred to as the “Arab Awakening.”  This hearing will explore political transition among the Mediterranean Partners in terms of current developments in democratic reforms, civil society empowerment, political pluralism, and the role of international community engagement.  The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: The Honorable William Roebuck, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Egypt and the Maghreb, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs The Honorable William B. Taylor, Vice President for Middle East and Africa of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Dr. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and Brookings Institution Saban Center Non-Resident Senior Fellow Ms. Zeinab Abdelkarim, Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)

  • The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of US-Azerbaijan Relations

    The hearing addressed security, economic, and human rights dimensions of U.S. - Azerbaijan relations ahead of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2014 annual meeting, taking place in Azerbaijan. Helsinki Commission Chairman Benjamin Cardin opened the hearing by speaking to these three dimensions. Regarding human rights, there are several concerns. Azerbaijan's presidential elections fell short of international standards and there are several individuals who have been harassed and detained because of their desire to report on events in Azerbaijan, raising concerns about freedom of the media. Chairman Cardin was joined by Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State, Thomas O. Melia, Miriam Lanskoy, and Brenda Shaffer.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON - Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of US-Azerbaijan Relations Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:00 am Russell Senate Office Building Room 432 The Republic of Azerbaijan has been an ally of the United States since its independence in 1991. It is a supplier of energy to Europe and has played an important role in assisting the U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan through the contribution of troops and as a conduit for the Northern Distribution Network. Azerbaijan is a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and in May it assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe (COE). Despite membership in both of Europe’s leading human rights institutions, Azerbaijan has been consistently criticized for its undemocratic elections and its use of the judicial system to punish political opponents. As the U.S. Helsinki Commission prepares to attend the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Baku at the end of June, this hearing will examine the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship and the impact of regional and domestic issues in Azerbaijan on that relationship. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Tom Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy Brenda Shaffer, Visiting Researcher, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University

  • Cardin Statement on Ukrainian Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Commission, issued the following statement on the May 25 early presidential elections in Ukraine. “Sunday’s vote was a day of destiny for Ukraine and a turning point in the nation’s effort to overcome Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s democratic development.   It also offers Ukraine a chance to turn a corner on a crippling legacy of corruption. The election also was important for the OSCE which is undertaking massive efforts in Ukraine aimed at fostering stability and encouraging democracy in Ukraine.  These elections present an historic opportunity to build and independent, prosperous state based on the rule of law. “I congratulate the Ukrainian people and the interim government on the conduct of yesterday’s free and fair vote.  Along with my colleague, Sen. Rob Portman, I was pleased at the opportunity to observe the elections first-hand and witness ordinary citizens who were clearly determined to freely make their choice and be stewards of their own destiny. “At the same time, I deplore the actions of those who have deprived Ukrainians in Russian occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine their right to vote through violence, intimidation and fear. “Ukraine’s people have shown remarkable courage and perseverance over the last six months in the face of tremendous internal challenges and serious and ongoing external threats.  We will continue to stand by the people of Ukraine and their newly elected president as they work to overcome these challenges and forge a free, independent and democratic future.”

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