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Azerbaijan: From Showmanship To Brinkmanship

President Aliyev is coming under increasing international pressure to hold free elections (AFP) In the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 6 November, Azerbaijani leaders face an unenviable dilemma.

On the one hand, they are under pressure from the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the United States to avoid the egregious violations and outright falsification that marred the elections of 1995, 1998, 2000, and 2003 and to deliver on their repeated pledges that this time around the vote will be transparent, free, and fair.

And, on the other hand, they need to secure a comfortable parliamentary majority for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party without sparking postelections protests on the lines of those that over the past two years have toppled entrenched regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The tactics and strategy selected to achieve that objective appear to contain elements of both showmanship and brinkmanship.


On 11 May, President Ilham Aliyev issued a decree outlining measures to improve the conduct of elections. The preamble to that decree admitted that contrary to the "political will" of the Azerbaijani authorities, previous elections were marred by "illegalities," but it blamed those irregularities on the "lack of professionalism" and "post-Soviet mentality" of individual local officials and election commission members. (No effort has been made over the past two years to identify the individuals responsible for those "irregularities" and bring them to justice.)

The first of 11 measures listed in President Aliyev's decree and intended to prevent a recurrence of procedural violations entailed programs to raise the professionalism and competence of the officials responsible for the organization of the election process and the vote count; the second was a warning to those officials that they will be held legally responsible for any infringements of the Election Law, such as hampering electioneering by opposition candidates or intervening in the voting process or vote count.

The Azerbaijani leadership is thus apparently seeking to offload in advance the blame for possible violations on to regional officials, who will have to calculate which offense will be perceived as greater: failing to ensure at all costs the victory of the ruling party's candidate, or risking their superiors' opprobrium should international observers register and publicly condemn malpractice in voting stations under their jurisdiction.

A third provision of President Aliyev's decree, ostensibly intended to contribute to the fairness of the election process, is the provision for the conduct of exit polls. Paradoxically, however, this provision could have the opposite effect if voters in rural areas, fearful of the wrath of the local authorities, claim to have voted for the YAP candidate when in fact they cast their votes for a member of the opposition. A glaring discrepancy between the actual division of ballots cast and the exit-poll results could impel local election commission members to bring the "official" tally into line with the inaccurate exit-poll data.

Further aspects of the election campaign to date that could be construed as manifestations of showmanship include the lifting of long-standing restrictions on holding opposition demonstrations in Baku; registration of several controversial opposition candidates, first and foremost former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev; the MSK's 12 August appeal to the Armenian population of the breakaway unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to register to elect a candidate to represent the enclave in the next Azerbaijani parliament; and the belated launch, on 29 August, of a nominally independent public television station whose mandate requires it to provide equal access to both pro-government and opposition parliamentary candidates.

On the same day as the MSK announced Guliev's registration, the office of Azerbaijan's prosecutor-general declared that it has stripped Guliev of his immunity from prosecution. Should he return to Baku from the United States, as he has pledged to do, he consequently risks arrest on charges of large-scale embezzlement. Following the 11 May presidential decree, in late June, under pressure from the international community, Azerbaijan's parliament adopted 43 amendments proposed by President Aliyev to the existing election law.

Those amendments did not, however, include the most important changes called for by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, nor did they increase opposition representation on election commissions at all levels, as the opposition had demanded. (The opposition demanded equal representation on election commissions, which the authorities rejected, accusing the opposition of thus seeking to prevent such commissions from adopting any decisions. Presidential-administration head Ramiiz Mekhtiev told on 23 July that the opposition's objective in demanding equal representation was the desire to be in a position to paralyze the functioning of election commissions and thus sabotage the entire election process. The Council of Europe called for appointing an additional opposition representative to the MSK to give a total of seven opposition and nine pro-government members.)

...And Brinkmanship

The presidential administration appears to regard the combined provisions of the presidential decree and the amended election law as a panacea against election fraud -- provided lower-level bureaucrats abide by its provisions. Proceeding from that conviction, the Azerbaijani leadership has apparently switched from showmanship to brinkmanship, arguing that additional measures to preclude fraud are unnecessary.

For example, Ali Hasanov, who heads the political department within the presidential administration, told on 1 September that the authorities do not consider it necessary to accede to the proposal, made most recently during a visit to Baku late last month by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Chairman Rene van der Linden, to mark voters' fingers with indelible ink to prevent multiple voting. Further, uglier manifestations of brinkmanship include the recourse for the first time in an Azerbaijani election to "doubles," meaning the nomination in a given constituency of additional candidates with the same name as a prominent oppositionist.

The first target for such confusion is former presidential adviser Edar Namazov, one of the leaders of the opposition alliance Yeni Siyaset, who will compete against two namesakes in a Baku constituency. The questionable allegations of collusion with Armenian special services brought by the Prosecutor-General's Office against Ruslan Bashirli, chairman of the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir, fall into the same category.

Allegations of treason by association were subsequently brought against Bashirli's mentor Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, one of three opposition parties aligned in the Azadlyg bloc. Some observers have construed the vilification campaign launched against Kerimli as an attempt to split Azadlyg by creating the impression that the authorities consider Kerimli, rather than fellow Azadlyg leader and Musavat party Chairman Isa Gambar (who lost to President Aliyev in the October 2003 presidential ballot), as the most popular and influential candidate, and by extension as a threat to be neutralized. The final list of candidates is to be announced on 7 September; manifestations of both brinkmanship and "black PR" are likely to multiply in the two months remaining before the election.

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