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Azerbaijan: Parliamentary Elections Unlikely To Be Fair

Voters in Azerbaijan will be choosing a new parliament on Sunday, but few people inside or outside the country expect the result to correspond to the popular will. As in previous parliamentary and presidential elections, opposition candidates have had trouble getting registered in the run-up to the vote, and the expectation is that Sunday's election will see incidents of vote fraud. RFE/RL's Liz Fuller provides this scene-setter.

Prague, 3 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani voters go to the polls on Sunday (Nov. 5) to elect a new parliament in a vote many hoped would mark a change from previous undemocratic elections in 1995 and 1998.

But despite efforts by watchdog groups to reform election laws and to register more candidates opposed to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party, few people believe the ballot will be free, fair and democratic.

Isa Gambar is the chairman of the leading opposition party, the Musavat Party. His belief that president Heidar Aliyev is trying to fix the ballot is typical. As he tells RFE/RL:

"The Azerbaijani people and the international community know that Heidar Aliev's government tries to falsify elections. We struggle for free and fair elections against the regime, and the more successful our struggle is, the more legitimate the elections will be."

It is now widely expected that the official result will give the Yeni Azerbaycan party an overall majority of the 125 seats. The party is headed by Aliev, and its election campaign is spearheaded by his son Ilham, who is being groomed to succeed his father as president.

In order to avoid the massive falsification that marred both the previous parliamentary elections in 1995 and the presidential poll in 1998, the Azerbaijani opposition earlier this year suggested the United Nations should oversee the ballot.

When the UN said it could not do so without an invitation from the Azerbaijani leadership, the opposition drafted its own election legislation.

Parliament rejected this, but the OSCE's Warsaw-based Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights then persuaded authorities to accept some amendments to the parliament legislation that would minimize the potential for fraud.

In a report released earlier this week, however, the U.S.-based watchdog organization Human Rights Watch described the new legislation as less democratic in many respects than the laws it superceded.

In August, the country's Supreme Court ruled to amend the election law to remove a ban on parties that registered with the Justice Ministry less than six months prior to the announcement of the elections. That decision paved the way for the registration of former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev's opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.

But the Central Electoral Commission, or CEC -- most of whose members are loyal to the authorities -- initially registered only five of the 13 parties wishing to contest the 25 seats to be allocated under the party list system: Yeni Azerbaycan, the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party, the Civic Solidarity Party, the Communist Party, and what is called the "reformist" wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party.

Early last month, in response to a call by the U.S. State Department to register the opposition Democratic and Musavat parties, Aliyev instructed the CEC to register the eight parties which were initially barred from contesting the party list seats. Aliyev also said he would instruct the CEC to register all candidates who wished to contest the 99 single-mandate constituencies. No voting is taking place in the 100th constituency, Nagorno-Karabakh.

But local election commissions, whose members are appointed by the CEC, registered less than half of the total of over 1,000 would-be candidates. And of that group of registered candidates, only a quarter represent opposition parties, while 140 are members of Yeni Azerbaycan and 149 are nominally independent.

Cassandra Cavanaugh of Human Rights Watch in Baku says many of those denied registration have not been able to appeal:

"Fully half of the people who applied were not registered, and of those 408 unsuccessful applications -- we haven't, obviously Human Rights Watch hasn't talked to a huge number of them -- but really we've only heard of a literal handful being able to successfully press their appeals."

In its report, the rights group cites numerous examples of refusals by local election commissions to register opposition candidates. Cavanaugh says:

"From talking to people, from talking to these candidates, it's clear that it is common that people are pressured to withdraw their signatures, pressured not to work on behalf of these candidates whom the government does not favor. And then the candidates themselves--- several candidates told us that they were told point blank that it would be better for you if you were not to try to run, it could only create problems."

In the run-up to the election, voters have staged protests against what they regard as arbitrary refusals by local election officials to register opposition candidates. And opinion polls suggest that such measures may have undermined support for Yeni Azerbaycan. The findings of two polls this week suggest that Musavat is the most popular political party, with some 26 to 29 percent support. Yeni Azerbaycan is in second place with 22 percent.

But these findings are not likely to be reflected in the outcome.

Opposition politician Matlab Mutallimli, who heads a committee to defend the rights of would-be candidates refused registration, has even claimed the results of Sunday's election have already been determined in advance. He has published a list of names of those deputies due to be proclaimed "elected" in the 99 single-mandate constituencies.

A similar list made public on the eve of the 1995 poll proved almost 100 percent accurate.

(RFE/RL's Bruce Jacobs and Petra Mayer contributed to this report)