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Opposition In Belarus, Azerbaijan Differ Over Election Boycotts

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
Azerbaijan and Belarus are both authoritarian regimes in which opposition political parties, while guaranteed freedom to function by the constitution, are routinely harassed, sidelined, and deprived of access to the media.

In light of those restrictions, some opposition parties and individual politicians in both countries have argued that participation in elections in which the authorities will blatantly and cynically engineer victory for the ruling party or incumbent president is tantamount to complicity in that falsification. For that reason, they choose to boycott the vote in the hope that the international community will pressure the authorities to create conditions for a free and fair ballot.

Others, however, argue that only by participating and then demonstrating the extent to which the election outcome was rigged do they stand any chance either of drawing attention to the fact that the cards are stacked against them or of improving the legal framework to reduce the opportunities for malpractice next time around.

While the Belarusian opposition overcame internal disagreements and decided at the last minute to participate in parliamentary ballot to be held on September 28, all major Azerbaijani opposition candidates remain committed to their declared boycott of the presidential election scheduled for October 15.

Expanded Presidential Powers

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka engineered a referendum in 1996 to approve a rewritten constitution that expanded the powers of the president. Since then, Belarus has held two presidential polls (2001, 2006), two parliamentary elections (2000, 2004), and a referendum on lifting the two-term restriction on the presidency (2004).

The parliamentary votes and the referendum were boycotted by the opposition, which claimed that neither Belarus's electoral legislation nor the election practice established by the authorities allowed for free campaigning or an honest vote count.

On the other hand, the opposition bitterly fought in the presidential elections of 2001 and 2006, even though the electoral legislation and the official conduct of elections remained virtually the same as in previous national polls.

One explanation for that electoral strategy was that, since the country's legislature -- the 110-seat Chambers of Representatives -- was devised in 1996 to rubberstamp decisions of the presidential administration and possesses no real powers, there was not much practical sense in seeking deputy mandates.

But there is also another explanation: the activity of Belarusian opposition parties is practically confined to major cities, so the opposition is incapable of conducting a full-fledged election campaign in small towns and rural areas, where grassroots party structures are nonexistent.

And indeed, this deficiency has been acutely felt during the current parliamentary election campaign, in which the opposition, which managed to register some 70 candidates, lacks the practical means to canvass in out-of-the-way electoral districts. During the presidential polls, when there was just one opposition candidate (as in 2001) or two (as in 2006), the opposition's task was somewhat easier.

This year the Belarusian opposition was initially set to boycott the parliamentary polls on the same grounds as four and eight years earlier. Their main objections were that there is only residual opposition representation on local election commissions, which are directly responsible for counting the vote (just 0.07 percent of the members of those commissions were allowed by the authorities to represent opposition parties).

There is no efficient mechanism in place for ensuring the security of ballot boxes during early voting, which begins six days ahead of election day. And, according to the practice adopted eight years ago, neither domestic nor international monitors are allowed to verify the vote count or even check the voter lists.

But last week the United Democratic Forces, the main coordinating body of several Belarusian opposition parties, changed its mind and gave the green light for its candidates to pursue their election bids. There were at least two motives for canceling the planned boycott. Some registered opposition candidates had threatened rebellion, arguing that they would continue their campaigns despite their leaders' decision in favor of a boycott.

Second, Western partners of the Belarusian opposition have unambiguously suggested that they would like to see the opposition candidates stay in the game up to the end. According to rumors circulating among Belarusian political analysts and commentators, both Lukashenka and the West are keenly interested in having these elections recognized as more or less democratic as a precondition for unfreezing mutual relations.

Some even assert that there is a secret deal between Lukashenka and the West, under which several handpicked opposition candidates will be given seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Presumably, this is a cost Lukashenka is ready to pay to balance Russia's recent resurgence in global politics with somewhat warmer ties with the West.

Tactical Weapon

Riot police put down an opposition demo in Baku
Over the past decade, the opposition in Azerbaijan has repeatedly used the threat of an election boycott as a tactical weapon to try to pressure the authorities into legislative and administrative concessions that would lessen the capacity of the latter to control and manipulate the election campaign and determine its outcome. But they have made good on that threat only once, in 1998, when the five most prominent opposition party leaders decided against participating in the presidential election in the hope that the international community would consequently decline to acknowledge the outcome as legal and valid.

That proved a tactical error on several counts. Three months prior to the vote, incumbent President Heidar Aliyev asked the parliament to abolish media censorship and approve amendments to the election law, both moves intended to demonstrate his determination to ensure a free and fair election. According to official results, which the international community did not dispute, Aliyev was reelected with 76 percent of the vote. Opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mammedov, whom many believed had concluded a secret deal with the authorities, placed second with 11 percent.

Unlike their Belarusian counterparts, opposition parties in Azerbaijan opted to participate in the parliamentary elections of both 2000 and 2005, in order to avail themselves of the admittedly very limited opportunities that parliamentary representation affords the opposition to publicly criticize, and advocate alternatives to, official policy. And in 2000, their threat to boycott forced the parliament to relent and make some changes to the election law. But the procedural violations that marred the 2005 vote were so egregious that five of the 10 opposition candidates elected chose not to participate in the work of the new parliament, arguing that it lacked legitimacy.

Since early 2000, the opposition and international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission have been engaged in a war of attrition with the Azerbaijani authorities over proposed amendments to election-related legislation, in particular the composition of the central and lower level election commissions, which are dominated by members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP).

Shortly before each successive national election (parliamentary in 2000 and 2005, presidential in 2003 and 2008), the Azerbaijani parliament has endorsed minor amendments to the law, while preserving the authorities' control over election commissions.

It is that entrenched monopoly by the YAP over the process of counting and tabulating votes that, more than any other factor, impelled potential opposition presidential candidates to declare one after the other that they would not run in the October 15 presidential ballot, given that not even the minimum conditions were in place for ensuring that the ballot would be free and fair. Other factors that likewise contribute to the lack of a "level playing field" include restrictions of freedom of assembly that preclude staging opposition rallies in the center of Baku, and opposition politicians' lack of access to television.

The international community, in particular the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, formally designated the declared opposition boycott "unfortunate," noting at the same time that the registration of no fewer than seven candidates is enough to ensure plurality and genuine competition.