Azerbaijan: How not to win an election
President Ilham Aliyev

On October 9th citizens of the ex-Soviet resources-rich Republic of Azerbaijan were called to the polls, as the incumbent President Ilham Aliyev stood for a third term. The first results indicated a landslide victory of Aliyev against his main contender, the historian Jamil Hasanli. The Central Election Commission indicated that the vote had been fair and democratic, and pointed out at the report of the observation mission lead together by the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

In a joint statement, the two assemblies – in an attempt to reassure the international community – stated that: “Overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process” or “From what we have seen, electoral procedures on the eve and on election day have been carried out in a professional and peaceful way”.

Azerbaijan and the European Union are currently seeking closer ties, since Azerbaijan will participate in the Eastern European Summit in Vilnius on the 27th and 28th of November. However, there is serious concern that the European Union could be blinding for the Aliyev regime´s continuous human rights violations in its attempt to pursue the enlargement policy among the Eastern Partnership potential candidates.

A repressive run-up for elections…

The Economist, in a striking article entitled “How not to prepare an election” draws attention to contradictory trends in the election preparation process. On the one hand, the Azerbaijani authorities had released several journalists from prison in December 2012 – which according to the OSCE could help create a better environment for journalists”. Even some small-scale demonstrations had been allowed.

On the other hand, the Aliyev regime continued its crack-down on human rights defenders and demonstrators. The international NGO Human Rights Watch published in September 2013 an extensive account on the state of the Azerbaijani civil society, “Tightening the screws”. The introductory chapter sets the one:

Since then the government has been engaged in a concerted effort to curtail opposition political activity, punish public allegations of corruption and other criticism of government practices, and exercise greater control over non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It has done so by arresting and imprisoning dozens of political activists on bogus charges, adopting restrictive legislative amendments, consistently breaking up public demonstrations in the capital, and failing in its duty to investigate and punish those responsible for violent attacks and smear campaigns against critical journalists”. Examples of the regime’s repressive tactics are many, but here come two of them:

Riots took place in January in the cities of Ismayilli and Quba against the corrupt local officials. The car of the governor of Ismayilli was even set on fire. But there again, the police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse the crowd and as many as 50 demonstrators were detained.

Furthermore, the regime signed up in June 2013 a new law that criminalized defamation and public offense on the Internet, which gave the authorities the possibility to launch actions against activists that post critical statement on social media. The law was highly criticized by the Venice Commission – an advisory body at the Council of Europe in the field of constitutional law – which clearly affirms “However, in its current form, the Draft Law is, in many respects, not in line with the applicable ECHR principles” (aka European Court of Human Rights) and fails to include “the essential role of the press as public watchdog and the public’s right to receive information, the importance of political debate in a free and democratic society as well as the fundamental requirement of proportionality of restrictions to freedom of expression and the chilling effect of disproportionate sanctions and awards”.

For an expected result!

Another fact-finding mission – led by the OSCE – came to very a different conclusion than the European Parliament and PACE. “The 9th October election was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of Election Day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections”.

The free-speech restrictions and one-sided media coverage had been so severe that the BBC named Mr. Aliyev the “Pre-determined President”.  Results were even published a full day before the polls were opened.

Since then, the European Union has shown its concerns over the consequences of such an election masquerade. Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Commissioner Štefan Füle, issued a statement where they directly referred to the OSCE’s conclusions (strikingly enough, they do not mention the European Parliament’s own observation report). But such statement has yet failed to lead to stronger political reaction.

The costs of this obvious lack of democratic commitment could be wider than ever imagined. About 4,000 protests have already shaken up the streets of Azerbaijan on October 12th, with massive police repression.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels think-thank that monitors conflicts throughout the world, warns about a “season of risks” in the region, especially with the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Its conclusion: more intense contacts between the EU and Azerbaijan should be brought about as soon as possible. Time for tougher action Mrs. Ashton?

Edited by: Celeste Concari

Photo Credits: Harald Dettenborn