Opposition politicians immediately denounced the amendments as effectively precluding a fair ballot. One opposition party that earlier stated its intention to participate in the election hinted that it might reverse that decision.
Each of the four previous national elections in Azerbaijan -- presidential in 1998 and 2003 and parliamentary in 2000 and 2005 -- was preceded by an intensive and acrimonious debate on the need to enact election legislation that would preclude the sort of egregious violations that marred the 1995 parliamentary ballot. The opposition stressed in particular the importance of abolishing the ruling party's control over election commissions, which adopt decisions on the basis of a two-thirds majority. In 1998, several leading potential opposition presidential candidates opted for a boycott rather than participate in a poll in which they considered the odds were stacked against them. In response to pressure from the international community, the Azerbaijani parliament agreed in July 1998 to some opposition demands, such as reducing the minimum required turnout from 50 to 25 percent, limiting the number of signatures collected in support of a given candidate's registration that may be verified for authenticity by the Central Election Commission, and the abolition of media censorship, but not that for equal representation on the commission.
In the event, the 1998 presidential election, like the parliamentary poll three years earlier, was characterized by procedural violations on such a scale that international observers ranked it as not complying with international standards. The preliminary OSCE assessment noted specifically that while the amended law showed significant improvements over the previous version, "its implementation...fell short in meeting international standards."
In light of those shortcomings, in early 2000 the opposition prepared several new draft laws on elections and specifically on the Central Election Commission, all of which the authorities ignored. In the early summer of 2000, the parliament instead adopted government-drafted fundamental revisions to the existing election law, and proposed a model for the Central Election Commission that reduced the number of its members from 24 to 18, six each to be nominated by the parliament majority party, the minority parliamentary parties, and nonaligned deputies.
But opposition representatives objected that while apparently democratic, that model effectively gave the authorities an overall majority, given that almost all nominally independent parliament deputies support the Azerbaijani leadership. For that reason, the opposition continued to hold out for equal representation on the commission. The draft bill was finally amended to stipulate that the parliament majority and the opposition would each nominate six members of the commission, four members would be nonpartisan, and the remaining two would be chosen on the basis of consultations between the authorities and the opposition. The commission chairman would be from the majority party, while the opposition and the nonaligned deputies would each propose one of that body's two secretaries. Decisions by the commission would be made by a two-thirds vote.
Despite those revisions, however, the November 2000 ballot proved if anything just as problematic as the presidential poll of 1998. The OSCE's Election Monitoring Mission registered widespread violations in the course of the election campaign, voting, and vote count, and noted that the improvements to the legislative framework were not systematically implemented.
In July 2002, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued a press release calling for "transparent and inclusive" reform of the existing election legislation. Gerard Stoudmann, at that time ODIHR director, was quoted in that 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." Yet another new law was accordingly drafted, to which the opposition raised hundreds of objections, of which the most weighty was to the proposed composition of election commissions at all levels. The draft advocated reverting to the model under which one-third of the Central Election Commission members were to be named by the political party that constituted the parliamentary majority, one third by minority parties, and the remaining third by nonpartisan parliament deputies. After a debate lasting several months, the election law was duly amended in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential ballot to redistribute representation on election bodies to give opposition parties 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 of local election commissions, but with the proviso that the changes would take effect only after the 2005 parliamentary election.
In June 2005, in the run-up to that ballot, the Azerbaijani parliament approved 43 separate election-law amendments proposed by President Ilham Aliyev, not including the most important changes called for by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. Those amendments left the composition of election commissions unchanged. They also left in force the provision that domestic NGOs that receive more than 30 percent of their funding from abroad may not monitor elections. The amendments did, however, include some 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.
The OSCE preliminary assessment of the 2005 ballot noted the "limited improvements to the electoral framework," but at the same time concluded that "the composition of election commissions favored pro-government candidates, [and] at times undermining confidence in the independence and impartiality of the election administration." And its final (February 1, 2006) report contained an entire section detailing proposed changes to the Electoral Code, of which arguably the most important was revising the composition of election commissions in order to strengthen public confidence in their objectivity. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission accordingly set about trying to induce the Azerbaijani authorities to undertake the kind of fundamental revision of the election law that would at last provide for a clean vote, the outcome and validity of which the opposition would have no grounds to question. The commission drafted, and presented to the Azerbaijani government, recommendations intended to ensure that the makeup of election commissions would inspire the trust of all political forces, and the Azerbaijani authorities duly submitted proposed amendments to the Venice Commission in early 2007.
But the Azerbaijani authorities continued to reject any demand for changing the composition of the Central Election Commission on the grounds that "you don't change horses in midstream." Ali Ahmedov, deputy chairman of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), argued that the upcoming elections "should not be turned into an experiment," adding that in no country in the world is the makeup of election bodies changed for every successive election, day.az reported on June 4, 2007. Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov for his part made the point that while the Venice Commission is empowered to make recommendations, it cannot insist on their adoption, according to day.az on September 7. The same agency on September 28 quoted senior YAP parliamentarian Safa Mirzoyev as arguing that there was no need for major changes to the law, given that the existing version was perfectly adequate to ensure a fair vote. And on October 16, presidential administration official Ali Gasanov warned that the authorities would not accept any changes to the election law that subordinated the Central Election Commission to any political force.
In November 2007, a three-day roundtable discussion of the authorities' most recent proposed amendments took place in Baku. During that discussion, the Venice Commission reportedly insisted that Azerbaijan's election legislation should conform to unspecified international norms, while opposition party representatives present accused the Venice Commission of not defending their interests, the online daily zerkalo.az reported in a November 9 article entitled "The Opposition Shows Its Teeth." The talks ended with the Azerbaijani authorities rejecting the commission's proposals on amending the composition of election commissions.
The authorities nonetheless agreed to make other, unspecified changes, but that may have simply been a ploy to win time. A further round of consultations with Venice Commission experts, this time without opposition representation, took place in Baku in February 2008, at which the authorities yet again refused to amend the composition of election commissions.
The Azerbaijani parliament commission began reviewing and endorsing the final draft amendments in May, at which juncture Eldar Namazov, head of the public organization In the name of Azerbaijan and himself a prospective presidential candidate, alleged that the presidential administration had submitted two separate draft bills to the legislature, one containing many of the proposals on which the Venice Commission insisted and a second, more authoritarian version, echo-az.com reported on May 20. According to legal expert Cingiz Dadashev, one draft was submitted on May 2 and the second on May 14; one gave the duration of the election campaign as 60 days and the other as 120 days (as in earlier legislation), while both drastically reduced, from 35 to 10 days, the timeframe within which prospective candidates must collect 50,000 signatures in their support. On May 28, Akif Gurbanli, who represents the opposition Umid party on the Central Election Commission, was likewise quoted by zerkalo.az as saying the amendments submitted to parliament differ fundamentally from those endorsed by the Venice Commission.
The final version of the law -- which was amended in the course of the parliament debate on June 2 -- sets the length of the election campaign at 75 days, fewer than the four months previously envisaged. Given that the presidential election has already been scheduled for October 15, the campaign will therefore kick off at the beginning of August. The number of signatures a candidate must collect in his support has been lowered from 50,000 to 40,000, but the alternative option of paying a cash deposit has been abolished. Finally, the state-controlled TV channel will no longer provide free airtime for presidential candidates, although Azerbaijan Public Television will do so.
As noted above, the various opposition factions are united in their disappointment and disapproval of the revised law, which they claim reduces to "an illusion" the prospect of holding free and fair elections. Even before the final passage of the amendments, the Azadlyq bloc, comprising the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the Liberal party, and the Citizen and Development party, which for months had pegged participation in the October ballot to the creation of a level playing field for all candidates, confirmed that it will boycott the election, zerkalo.az reported on May 31. The Musavat party, which planned to nominate its veteran leader Isa Qamber as its candidate, signaled that it may opt not to participate after all.