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Caucasus Report: May 23, 2003

23 May 2003, Volume 6, Number 19

PRO-PRESIDENTIAL CAMP IN DISARRAY ON EVE OF ARMENIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION. Even though international organizations criticized the perceived widespread falsification that marred both rounds of the Armenian presidential election in February-March, opinion polls suggest that few Armenians believe that the country's leadership is prepared to ensure that the 25 May parliamentary ballot will be truly free and fair. Consequently, most experts doubt that the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc comprising over a dozen parties that backed defeated presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian has a chance of winning a majority of the 131 seats in the new parliament despite its strong showing in opinion polls. Some cynics even allege that the country's leadership has already agreed on the division of seats within the new legislature. In the absence of major ideological differences between the 17 individual parties and four blocs contesting the election, the two most interesting aspects of this election campaign are the open competition for influence between the various parties that support incumbent President Robert Kocharian, and how the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement will fare in its bid to reenter parliamentary politics.

Numerous newspaper articles in recent weeks have made the point that the mutual criticisms and accusations exchanged between the various parties supporting President Kocharian on the one hand, and between members of Artarutiun and the National Unity Party headed by Artashes Geghamian on the other, are more acrimonious than those directed by the opposition at the pro-presidential camp or vice versa. One reason for this is the absence from the election campaign of clear ideological issues; indeed, for Artarutiun, the major campaign issue is its demand that the elections themselves be free, fair, and democratic. As for the pro-presidential camp, many observers infer from the sniping between its various members that their primary consideration is preserving, or augmenting, their current political clout. Those parties did, however, conclude an agreement not to field rival candidates in virtually all of the 56 single-mandate constituencies.

High-ranking members of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) led by current Prime Minister Andranik Markarian have said throughout the election campaign that the party is confident of increasing its representation from the current 38 seats it holds in the outgoing parliament, and of forming the new government. The fact that Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who managed Kocharian's presidential election campaign, is placed second on the HHK's list of candidates to contest the 75 seats to be allocated under the proportional system has inclined some observers to lend credence to such predictions. Others, however, suggest that Kocharian is not interested in strengthening the HHK. Instead, those commentators suggest, he would prefer to see a new parliament in which four or five of the parties that support him are represented, but none has a clear majority. Kocharian himself implicitly corroborated that hypothesis when he told journalists in Yerevan on 21 May that he envisages the next government as a coalition in which the HHK, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), and Orinats Yerkir will be represented. But at the same time, Kocharian left open the question of which of those parties would provide the new premier.

Certainly the HHK faces a fierce challenge from the Dashnaks, who have 10 parliamentary deputies and two ministerial portfolios. The opposition newspaper "Orran" on 20 March characterized those two parties as "at each other's throats," with each seeking to nominate the next prime minister. Kocharian's chief of staff Artashes Tumanian, who is running on the HHD party list, told "Haykakan zhamanak" on 26 April that he does not exclude the possibility that he might head the next cabinet, adding the disclaimer that "It is not a particularly nice thing to be prime minister in a society where there is serious social discontent [and] polarization." In an earlier interview with "Iravunk," Tumanian tacitly admitted the existence of tensions within the presidential camp, describing his relations with Sarkisian as "normal," but "not brotherly."

Orinats Yerkir, too, has engaged in criticism of the HHK: at a campaign rally on 21 April, Orinats Yerkir Chairman Artur Baghdasarian lambasted it as a party of oligarchs seeking to buy control of the next parliament. Even though the Election Code explicitly bans candidates from handing out "money, food, securities, goods, or services" to voters, the opposition paper "Aravot" on 7 May observed that such attempts at vote-buying are "more widespread than ever before." Certainly there have been plenty of press reports of wealthy businessmen offering blandishments either to communities (in the form of computers for local schools, or fertilizers for farms) or to individual voters (whether in the form of cash or, in the case of one incumbent deputy "rotten potatoes").

Some papers fear that as a result of this distribution of largesse, the new parliament will be dominated by narrow-minded businessmen whose primary concern is in the passage of legislation that will protect their economic interests. But the composition of the Artarutiun list of candidates virtually guarantees the election of Demirchian, opposition Republic party leader Aram Sargsian, and former Premier and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian. Artarutiun campaign manager Stepan Zarkarian predicted on 22 May that the bloc is confident of winning at least 44 parliamentary mandates and may even achieve an overall majority. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI LEADERSHIP DIVIDED OVER ELECTION LAW. Speculation in recent weeks that failing health may impel Azerbaijan's octogenarian President Heidar Aliyev to resign (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 16 May 2003) has overshadowed the failure of Azerbaijan's parliament to pass the required new election code. One reason for the delay, according to an anonymous senior Azerbaijan official, is major disagreements within the country's leadership over how democratic that legislation should be.

In July 2002, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights issued a press release calling for "transparent and inclusive" reform of the existing election legislation. That statement was clearly intended to obviate a repeat of the protracted and tortuous negotiations conducted in the summer of 2000 between ODIHR, the Azerbaijani authorities, and the opposition on the process of modifying the election law currently in force (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 June and 21 July 2000). Gerard Stoudmann, at that time the ODIHR director, was quoted in that organization's July press release as saying that "while it is the sovereign right of a state to reform its election system, such fundamental legislative changes should be based on a broad political consensus in order to ensure the widest public confidence in the reform process and its outcome."

The OSCE's hopes of promoting a broad discussion of the new draft election code have, however, been disappointed. The opposition compiled hundreds of objections to the draft bill, but at the same time insisted that those objections should be addressed not at the series of roundtable discussions convened for that purpose in December 2002-February 2003 by the OSCE's Baku office, but by a Conciliation Commission, on which both opposition and authorities would be represented (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 and 16 January and 3 March 2003).

When all efforts to establish such a commission failed, the opposition decided to focus on what it perceived as the draft code's gravest shortcoming, which was the proposed composition of election commissions at all levels. (The reason for that emphasis was the power invested in election commissions to falsify on the final protocol the number of votes cast for each candidate or party.) The draft code set the number of Central Election Commission (CEC) members at 21, three of them judges. (The opposition protested that the inclusion of judges would violate the constitutionally guaranteed independence of the judiciary, and that provision was dropped from the draft in late April.) One third of the CEC members were to be named by the political party that constituted the parliamentary majority, currently the Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) created as President Aliev's personal power base, one third by minority parties, and the remaining third by non-partisan parliamentary deputies. The opposition objected to that model on the grounds that virtually all the non-partisan parliamentary deputies in fact support the present leadership, and that the proposed division of seats on the CEC would give the present leadership a two-thirds majority.

During a two-hour discussion on 6 March between presidential administration member Shahin Aliyev and opposition lawyer Fuad Agaev, the latter proposed an alternative model for the CEC, on which he suggested all eight parties that polled a minimum 1 percent of the vote in the 2000 parliamentary elections should be represented. The parliament, however, ignored that proposal, and approved the bill in the first reading on 18 March, despite criticism from ODIHR, the National Democratic Institute, and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission.

On 30 April, when the parliament was still considering the bill in the second reading, the National Democratic Institute issued a statement affirming that the shortcomings of earlier election legislation have engendered distrust among both voters and political parties. It stresses that it is not enough to adopt legal provisions that meet the minimum criteria for democratic elections. "In countries like Azerbaijan that are politically polarized and marked by distrust among political parties, experience demonstrates that it is best to adopt a method for constituting the CEC that requires agreement across a broad spectrum of political parties for the appointment of each CEC member," the statement said. It further advocated that the CEC chairman should likewise be selected on the basis of consensus between pro-government and opposition parties.

On 6 May, the parliament embarked on a debate of draft amendments to the election proposed by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. The amendments addressed specifically the composition of the CEC and of district election commissions.

The Venice Commission proposed that the CEC comprise 16 members, six from YAP; one each selected by the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AXCP), the Civil Solidarity Party, and the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (ACP), which all polled over 6 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections; one each proposed by the non-partisan deputies and those representing the Ana Veten and Vahdat (Welfare) parties and the Alliance for Azerbaijan (PANA) elected in single-mandate constituencies; and the remaining four proposed by the Musavat Party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP), the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan (ALP), and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), all of which polled 1 percent of the vote. That allocation would give the pro-government camp nine members and the opposition seven. But in the CEC, as in the lower-level commissions, decisions would require a two-thirds majority.

The district election commissions would consist of nine members: three from YAP; three proposed by the AXCP, Civil Solidarity, and the CPA; one from Ana Veten, Vahdat, PANA, and the non-partisan deputies; and two proposed by Musavat, AMIP, ADP, and ALP. The precinct commissions would number eight members: three from YAP; three nominated by the AXCP, Civil Solidarity, the ACP, Ana Veten, Vahdat, PANA, and the non-partisan deputies; and two nominated by Musavat, the ADP, the ALP, and the AMIP. This latter model could have proven problematic in that it might have been difficult to reach a consensus between the opposition and pro-government parties that would have had to approve between them a total of three members.

In the event, however, the parliament rejected the Venice Commission's proposals on 7 May following a two-day debate. Interfax quoted Ali Akhmedov (YAP) as explaining that the proposed allocation of seats "would paralyze the work of the election commissions." One week later, presidential administration official Safa Mirzoedov told the same Russian agency that international organizations have no right to try to pressure Azerbaijan into adopting what they consider is the most appropriate election legislation. "Adopting laws is a sovereign right of Azerbaijan. The Council of Europe and the OSCE cannot threaten sanctions if we refuse to amend our Election Code as they want," Mirzoedov said.

A second presidential administration official, Ali Hasanov, told Interfax on 20 May the Venice Commission's proposed model "does not take into account the nature of the Azerbaijani opposition," and could have created unspecified problems at polling stations. At the same time, Hasanov stressed that the Azerbaijani leadership is ready to take any steps to ensure that the presidential elections meet international standards.

On 21 May, three parliamentary commissions began discussing an amended version of the Venice Commission's proposed model for forming election commissions at all three levels. That model reduced the number of members of the CEC from 16 to 15, and from precinct commissions from eight to six, while the district commissions would still have nine members. But in the case of all three, the number of seats controlled by YAP, other pro-government parties, and non-partisan deputies is increased. Even so, during the discussion YAP deputy Kerim Kerimov argued that it is inadmissible for the opposition to control even four (instead of the proposed five) of the nine seats on the district-level commissions because that would permit the opposition to "paralyze" the commissions' work in the light of the required two-thirds majority.

A planned parliamentary debate on the revised model scheduled for 21 May was postponed at short notice for reasons that were not made clear. The following day, the online publication quoted an unnamed senior official member as saying that there are major disagreements within the leadership over the draft election code (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May 2003). He said that against President Aliev's wishes, some "extremely influential groupings" are trying to torpedo the Venice Commission amendments in order to pass a version of the law that would facilitate falsification of the outcome of the presidential election due this fall.

The same official also told that some groupings within the leadership intend to nominate their own candidate for president in the event that the plan for transition -- which he claimed all factions have backed until now -- either has to be abandoned, or if the author of that plan or the intended beneficiary steps back from it. That formulation is a clear reference to, and the first quasi-official confirmation of the authenticity of, President Aliev's imputed plan to ensure that his son Ilham succeeds him as head of state. The informant identified those groupings as responsible for leaking the information on 20 May that Aliyev will soon withdraw his presidential candidacy, after which YAP will propose Ilham Aliyev as its presidential candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003). The presidential press service on 21 May rejected that report as unfounded. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The present 'peace process' in Chechnya is straight out of George Orwell: 'War is peace.'" --"Rodnaya gazeta," 16 May 2003.

"As Christians await the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Muslims the appearance of the 13th prophet, so our opposition awaits the advent of X-day [the departure from power of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev]." -- "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 16 May 2003.