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Azerbaijan: Leadership Ignoring Election Pressure

Azerbaijani President Aliyev At its final session before the two-month summer recess, the Azerbaijani parliament approved on 28 June in the second and third (final) readings 43 separate election law amendments proposed by President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijani media reported.

Those amendments do not include the most important changes called for by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. The Azerbaijani opposition, which had similarly argued that changes are essential to prevent election fraud, immediately attributed the parliament's apparent imperviousness to Western pressure to the current leadership's determination to "falsify the elections and create a puppet parliament," as Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar told Turan on 29 June.

The changes deemed most necessary by both the Council of Europe and the opposition focus on the composition of the election commissions responsible for counting and tallying votes. In line with amendments to the law passed two years ago in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential election, the opposition nominates six of the 15 members of the Central Election Commission, four of the nine members of regional election commissions, and two of the six members on local election commissions.
If there is a covert battle for influence within the upper echelons of the leadership between the "reformist" and the "conservative" camps, then the decision not to make changes called for by the Council of Europe suggests that it is the latter camp which has the upper hand.

The opposition argues that, as such commissions reach decisions by a two-thirds majority, those ratios enable the authorities, with the support of nominally independent but pro-regime commission members, to manipulate the outcome of the vote. The opposition therefore demands equal representation on election commissions at all levels. The amended version of the law adopted in May 2003 provided for increasing opposition representation on election commissions, but only after the parliamentary elections due in late 2005.

The election law amendments approved on 28 June leave the composition of election commissions unchanged. They also leave in force the provision that domestic NGOs that receive more than 30 percent of their funding from abroad may not monitor elections. The amendments do, however, include some key technical measures intended to ensure that elections are more democratic, such as reducing the deposit election candidates must pay to register, posting updated voter lists on the Internet, and cutting from five days to two days after the ballot the deadline for making public preliminary returns.

As indicated above, Azerbaijani opposition politicians reacted to passage of the amendments with anger and outrage. There has been no international reaction as of late on 29 June, but Council of Europe officials who visited Baku in recent months have made the point that even the most democratically-formulated law cannot prevent fraud if the authorities are dead set on rigging the ballot.

The international community has, however, warned repeatedly that Baku will face international opprobrium if the November ballot (the precise date has not yet been announced) is deemed to be less than free, fair, and democratic. Speaking on 28 June in Gyanja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, U.S. Ambassador Reno Harnish said that Washington "will issue a comprehensive warning" to the Central Election Commission and the Azerbaijani authorities if an attempt is made to falsify the vote.

Why the Azerbaijani leadership has essentially flouted the international community's recommendations can only be guessed at. If, as is widely believed, there is a covert battle for influence under way within the upper echelons of the leadership between the "reformist" and the "conservative" camp, then the decision not to make changes called for by the Council of Europe suggests that, at present, it is the latter camp which has the upper hand. Alternatively, it is conceivable that a senior official will seek to rationalize the decision by arguing that the decree issued by President Aliyev in May, which enumerates the penalties for any attempt to falsify the vote, is in itself adequate to ensure that the election is free and fair.

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