Shakhin Abbasov, Deputy editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Ekho (Baku, Azerbaijan)

Farid Gakhrimanly, Correspondent of the TURAN Information Agency (Baku, Azerbaijan)

Free and fair elections are one of the most important problems in Azerbaijans democratic development. Of all the election campaigns held in the country in 1990-2000, probably only the 1992 presidential elections can be called democratic. At that time, buoyed on the crest of the national-democratic movement, the leader of the Peoples Front, Abulfaz Elchibey, was elected head of state. All the other campaigns relating to universal voting were accompanied by mass falsifications and other violations of the law. Paradoxically, strengthening the countrys independence and stabilizing its sociopolitical position have done nothing to help democratization of the elections.

The parliamentary elections held on 12 November, 1995 were the first to be held under more or less serene sociopolitical conditions, with a referendum on the first Constitution of independent Azerbaijan taking place at the same time. By this time, the authorities had succeeded in eliminating the insurgent armed formations, intercepting several attempts at a state coup, and beginning macroeconomic stabilization. The external attributes of democracy were observed during this period: elections were held on a multiparty basis according to a mixed majority-proportional system with a large number of observers from the U.N./OSCE in attendance. But everything was performed according to the authorities scenario, which the countrys leadership subsequently took advantage of on more than one occasion. Then, during re-registration of the political parties, the government removed several structures from the election race, including the unpredictable Islamic Party. On the very eve of the voting, the authorities removed Musavat, one of the two largest opposition parties at that time, from the race, accusing it of falsifying the voter signature lists. In addition, most of the one-mandate opposition candidates were denied registration.

This election campaign was also characterized by other scandals. For example, Neimat Panakhly, an employee of the presidential administration and one of the leaders of the national-liberation movement at the end of the 1980s-beginning of the 1990s, promulgated the list of members of the future parliament prepared by the presidential administration, which subsequently received 95 percent confirmation. The voting process itself, as well as the vote counting, was accompanied by mass violations of the law. The powers that be even resorted to coercive pressure and threats. And in the capitals Nizami District, where one of the prominent representatives of the opposition was balloting, former secretary of state, Professor Lala Shovket, things even ended in an exchange of fire, although luckily no one was hurt.

As a result of the election falsification, the countrys president, Heydar Aliev, succeeded in achieving his goal of forming a super-loyal parliament. Of the 124 deputies in the Milli Mejlis, only nine represented the opposition, and the rest either belonged to the ruling party, Eni Azerbaijan, or did not officially belong to any party, but essentially supported all the executive powers initiatives.

Two days after the voting, the international community came forward with harsh criticism. The statements of the U.N./OSCE mission noted the numerous falsifications and other violations that took place at the elections. But the legitimacy of the new parliament was not subjected to doubt. The West made allowances for the republics insufficient experience with conducting multiparty elections, for the conflict with Armenia, and for several other factors. An important role was also played by the ratification of the new Constitution, which declared upholding the democratic path of development, a multiparty system, and observation of human rights. This all inspired the hope that the Azerbaijan authorities would not repeat the mistakes made at the past elections in the future. The difficulties caused by the regions geopolitical position were also taken into account: by this time, Azerbaijan had signed a major oil contract with Western companies, which aroused a fervent reaction in its northern and southern neighbors. The republic found itself gripped in a tight vice between Moscow and Tehran. Under the pretext of the military conflict in Chechnia, Russia unilaterally closed the northern transportation arteries, which prevented Azerbaijan from using them. But in order to attract Western governments and major oil companies to the country, it needed stability. Under these conditions, putting pressure on the Azerbaijan government because of the undemocratic parliamentary elections would have placed the hydrocarbon production projects to be implemented in the republic under threat. What is more, the country had no strong opposition at that time capable of providing a real alternative to Heydar Alievs team.

Presidential elections were held in October 1998. By this time, Azerbaijan enjoyed the status of special guest in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). It would seem that now the government could not and would not want to repeat the scenario of the 1995 elections, particularly since it looked as though there was some consolidation in the oppositions ranks. A rather strong opposition Movement for Election Reforms and Democratic Elections (MERDE) had been created.

Several factorsthe ongoing Karabakh conflict, the increase in corruption, and the critical socioeconomic situationhave helped to strengthen the opposition. At this time, the country suddenly had several candidates capable of competing with the current president. Taking this into account, the authorities made some adjustments to their election campaign tactics. In particular, they did not reveal the contents of the Law on Presidential Elections until the last moment, which put the opposition in a tight spot. Moreover, by including reactionary norms in the draft law from the very beginning, the government began using them as a bargaining tool with the West. By eliminating the minor anti-democratic provisions of this document under pressure from the West, the authorities tried to emulate their desire to build democracy.

But the government resolutely rejected all compromises on major issues, for example, it took the formation of the central and lower election commissions under its total control. Understanding that it was pointless to participate in the elections under these conditions, five of the leading opposition candidates, Abulfaz Elchibey (the Peoples Front of Azerbaijan Party [PFAP]), Isa Gambar (Musavat), Rasul Guliev and Ilias Ismailov (both from the Democratic Party), and Lala Shovket (the Liberal Party), boycotted them. The only real rival to Heydar Aliev was leader of the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NIPA) Etibar Mamedov. He skillfully used some of the positive changes in the legislation, in particular, the extended airtime offered candidates on national TV and radio, appointing candidates representatives to the election commissions, and so on. Etibar Mamedov led an aggressive election campaign, used PR techniques, which were new to the country, and traveled extensively around the republic. All of this had an extremely taxing effect on the governments nerves. And whereas during the first five years of his rule, Heydar Aliev left the capital on very rare occasions, he was compelled to follow the NIPA leader suit and make trips into the regions.

According to opposition and independent observers, the active campaign led by Mamedov made it possible for him to gather as much as 30% of the votes. Heydar Aliev was only a little ahead of him. And to win the first round, a candidate required the support of at least 2/3 of the voters participating in the elections. It appeared a second round was inevitable. But in order to insure himself against unpleasant surprises, Aliev decided to take some extraordinary measures. A directive was hurriedly sent to the election commissions to draw up new records of the voting results and indicate the falsified data in them, according to which Heydar Aliev gathered ... 80% of the votes. This was done, but so hastily and crudely that the authorities have to this day been unable to publicize the records of polling stations, although this is required by the law.

This time, the Wests criticism was even more severe. In the final statements by the observers from prestigious international organizations, including the OSCE, as well as from representatives of the U.S. National Institute for Democracy, the presidential elections were called dishonest, undemocratic, and not free. In his statement to Heydar Aliev, then president of the United States Bill Clinton did not use the word election once. He only congratulated Aliev on his second presidential term.

But the Azerbaijan authorities succeeded in avoiding international isolation. Official Baku compensated for the Wests displeasure with the lack of democracy in the republic by drawing up new oil contracts and a policy aimed at Euro-Atlantic integration. Azerbaijan initiated the idea of creating the pro-Western union GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), as well as implementing major pipeline and other transportation projects orientated toward the West and bypassing Russia. In addition, official Baku stepped up its activity aimed at gaining the countrys membership in the Council of Europe and took several progressive steps in this direction. In particular, the death penalty was abolished in the country, the penitentiary system was significantly reformed, a law was adopted on the transfer to a three-level judicial system, and other specific obligations were adopted on democratizing the countrys political system.

All of this reassured the West and gave it reason to hope that the parliamentary elections in 2000 would be conducted according to a new scenario. Meanwhile, in 1999, municipal elections were held for the first time in the country, but neither the opposition nor international observers paid the slightest bit of attention to them. This was explained by the fact that as early as the formation of legislation on the municipal agencies, local self-administration bodies were endowed with purely symbolic functions.

So, the country approached the 2000 parliamentary elections in the hope of seeing positive changes. But the authorities did not rush to fulfill their obligations. And even making Azerbaijans membership in the Council of Europe dependent on the results of the parliamentary elections did not compel the countrys leadership to reject its desire to falsify the elections again and achieve the result it needed. Recalling the difficulties caused by the oppositions consolidation at the 1998 elections, the authorities undertook resolute measures aimed at driving a wedge into the adversarys ranks. In particular, the representatives of two parties, the Peoples Front and National Independence, were included in the Central and lower election commissions. This naturally aroused a negative response in the other two strong opposition parties, Musavat and the Democratic Party, increasing their mistrust of their potential allies.

By giving the opposition a third of the seats and the post of secretary in the election commissions at all levels, from the Central Commission to the local, the authorities did not lose control over these structures, but retained a qualified majority in them. In addition, taking into account the lessons learned from the 1998 elections, the government, initiating the corresponding decisions of the pocket parliament and the Central Election Commission, drastically reduced the amount of television and radio airtime granted to parties and candidates for their election campaigns. The participation of local nongovernmental organizations as observers was also restricted. In particular, the independent consultation center For a Civil Society (the Azerbaijani partner of the U.S. National Institute for Democracy), which has experience in monitoring presidential (1998) and municipal elections, was left out in the cold. What is more, at the registration stage of party lists and one-mandate candidates, the government tried to use the strategy tested in 1995. For example, the Central Election Commission attempted to exclude Musavat and the Democratic Party from the election campaign, accusing them of falsifying the voter signature lists. But under pressure from the West, one month before the voting, on the initiative of President Heydar Aliev, the Central Election Commission made an exception and registered all parties who submitted an application to participate in the elections under the proportional system. Nevertheless, more than 400 people who registered as candidates from the opposition and independents from majority districts ended up being barred from the elections.

All of the governments administrative and financial resources went to ensuring the success of the ruling party, Eni Azerbaijan, the proportional list of which was headed by the presidents son 39-year-old Ilkham Aliev, deputy chairman of this party, first vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, and president of the National Olympic Committee. But active promotion of this candidate did not yield the anticipated results. Independent experts deemed the results of the voting a defeat for the Eni Azerbaijan Party. According to local and foreign observers, it did not obtain more than 20% of the votes. The rest went to the opposition parties, Musavat, the NIPA, the PFAP, the Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party. They all topped the 6-percent barrier necessary to enter parliament with plenty of room to spare.

Again the government had to falsify the elections, as a result of which only the PFAP joined the representative branch of power under the proportional system. A similar situation also developed in the majority districts. The parliament again proved to be completely loyal to President Aliev. International observers raked official Baku over the coals once more. One of them even stated that falsification of the elections had reached a level unprecedented in the world.

The Azerbaijani authorities, which were knocking on the doors of the Council of Europe at this time, were required to take drastic measures and carry out a major review of the complaints made by the candidates and parties. In response to this, the government cancelled the results of the voting in 11 of the 99 districts, and repeat elections were to be scheduled there. But since they realized that these elections would have no decisive impact on the breakdown in forces in the parliament, the opposition parties (with the exception of the PFAP) boycotted them. So the authorities again obtained the result they needed with the minimum violations.

Paradoxically, Azerbaijan was nevertheless accepted into the Council of Europe. Such leniency from the Europeans toward the countrys leadership promoted an increase in skepticism in Azerbaijani society of western democracy. The opinion became popular that in the name of its pragmatic interests, the West was ready to flippantly give the powers that be complete control over resolving the problem of democracy in our republic. And the terrorist acts of 11 September, 2001 in the United States and the subsequent strengthening of Azerbaijans geopolitical position, which became an active participant in the antiterrorist coalition, only served to intensify these sentiments even more. At the same time, unequivocal support by official Baku of the U.S.s actions raised our countrys prestige in the western world. The U.S. Congress finally lifted Art 907 of the Freedom Support Act introduced in 1992 under pressure from the American Armenian lobby due to the so-called blockade of Armenia, which discriminated against Azerbaijan.

Apparently deciding to take advantage of the rise in the countrys significance in the new international situation, Heydar Aliev also tried to strengthen his own power. In June 2002, one year before the presidential elections, he suddenly came forward with the initiative to make amendments to the Constitution. Theoretically these innovations were motivated by the need to bring the countrys Basic Law into harmony with European standards and the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. But in actual fact Aliev was clearly pursuing his personal goals of strengthening the power vertical and weakening the opposition. For example, according to many local and international experts, the proposal to cancel the proportional system of parliamentary elections and their complete transfer to a majority basis dealt a serious blow to pluralism in Azerbaijan.

In order to ensure as few problems as possible when transferring power to his successor, should such a need arise, Heydar Aliev proposed making an amendment which envisaged passing the presidents duties on to the prime minister, in the event of his early retirement, and not to the parliament speaker, as is set forth in the current Constitution. At first glace, this would appear logical, since the prime minister occupies second place in the hierarchy of executive power. But the twist to the situation is that, according to the Constitution, the president appoints the prime minister, for which the head of state only needs the informal approval by the parliament.

In addition, an amendment was proposed to the Constitution according to which in order to win the presidential elections it was enough to gather not 2/3, but only half of the votes in the first round. This was clearly aimed at preventing a repetition of the situation that occurred during the 1998 presidential elections. We will remind you that in order to avoid a second round, the authorities resorted to total falsification.

Sensing that their future political career was in danger, the leaders of the opposition (for the first time since 1998) undertook resolute measures to jointly undermine Alievs plans. After announcing that it was impossible to conduct a normal referendum under conditions whereby voters were given only two months to discuss the 39 amendments proposed, the opposition called on the people to boycott the plebiscite. In addition, the opposition sensibly noted that during this period, when more than two million of the republics citizens were earning a living in other countries and many were on their summer vacation, it was impossible to ensure a turnout of more than half the electorate. Under the same pretext (limited time), international organizations, in particular the OSCE and the Council of Europe, refused to send observers to the country.

Under pressure from the local opposition, international organizations demanded that the republics authorities democratize the procedure for holding the referendum. For example, on the initiative of the OSCE Baku Office, five Round Tables were held with the participation of the authorities and the opposition, which were broadcast on television, giving the population a chance to acquaint themselves with the arguments of both sides. In addition, the authorities consented to the proposals made by international organizations and divided the questions to be discussed at the referendum into eight groups, thus making it easier for the voters to select their response. However, in order to create the semblance that the population was participating actively in the referendum, the authorities placed pressure on budget employees and the representatives of small business by demanding that they vote for the proposed amendments.

The innovation of this campaign was that secondary school teachers were also made to ensure that the parents of their pupils turn out for the referendum by promising them gratuitous textbooks. In addition, on the governments initiative, mobile groups were formed which on the day of the referendum voted at several polling stations at once. All of these instances were registered by observers for the opposition, who, incidentally, were not registered until the day before the voting and only after insistent demands from western diplomats.

The results of the referendum announced by the Central Election Commission were sustained in the best Soviet tradition. It turned out that more than 83% of the voters participated in the voting, and 96% of them supported all the proposed amendments to the Constitution. The opposition, which monitored the voting jointly (the NIPA, the Democratic Party, the PFAP, and Musavat) and rather successfully for the first time, announced the absence of a quorum at the referendum and demanded that its results be declared null and void. In so doing, the public was presented with records from 2/3 of the polling stations, which supported the oppositions analysis beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Against the background of the relatively mild statements made during the pre-referendum period, the Wests extremely severe criticism of its results came as an unpleasant surprise. Whereas in the past after every election, the international community claimed that Azerbaijan had taken a step forward in the direction of democracy, its evaluation of referendum results was full of pessimism. For example, the very next day after the referendum, U.S. Department of State Press Secretary Richard Baucher stated existence of the fact of violations during the 24 August referendum. "We are concerned that the 24 August referendum was a weak contribution in terms of democratization of society and bringing the 2003 presidential elections up to international standards. We will back up political pluralism and transparency in government in Azerbaijan.

Two weeks later, Deputy Chief of the OSCE Mission Douglas Davidson made an even harsher statement. He subjected the Azerbaijani authorities, which falsified the referendum results, to serious criticism. Davidson expressed serious doubt in the governments intentions to hold honest presidential elections in 2003. In confirmation of his words he mentioned instances of falsifying voters ballots, throwing packs of bulletins into the urns, and repeat voting by the same people. Davidson expressed Washingtons disappointment and strongly urged the Azerbaijani authorities to work with the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and others in the international community to put in place effective mechanisms to ensure a fair and impartial electoral process for the future. What is more, the American representative noted the following: The United States is thus concerned that this referendum did little to advance democratization in Azerbaijan. We were disappointed by the restrictions on domestic monitoring, the lack of Election Commission reform, the limited time for public education, and the failure to invite comments on the referendum from the OSCE or the Council of Europe.

PACE was equally critical. The recommendation it adopted on 25 September on Azerbaijans fulfillment of its obligations to the Council of Europe pointed out serious violations of democratic norms during the referendum.

These comments gave grounds to believe that the international community could no longer remain impartial to questions of democracy in Azerbaijan, since otherwise, democratic values will be discredited. A sign of this is without doubt the events in the settlement of Nardaran located 40 km from the republics capital, which alarmed not only official Baku, but also the West. The traditionally religious population of this settlement made social demands on the authorities using Islamist slogans. The fear that an increasing number of Azerbaijani citizens disillusioned with democratic values will look for an ideological basis for their political self-expression in religion has prompted the West to take a serious attitude toward the absence of honest elections in the country.

In turn, the traditional opposition, inspired by the Wests support, has increased its pressure on the authorities, which essentially launched the presidential campaign for 2003. The number of participants in mass acts of protest by the united opposition (August-September) has begun to grow in geometric progression. But experienced politician Heydar Aliev, who has the ability to precisely read the situation several moves ahead, appears to understand that he will not be able to hold these elections according to the previous scenario. It will be very difficult for him to win, even if the opposition is split again. Corruption, cronyism, the dearth of economic reforms, the high unemployment level, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the arbitrariness of the police, and so on are all factors diminishing the current presidents popularity.

Heydar Aliev also understands that the United States and the Council of Europe will put immense pressure on the Azerbaijani government and that it will be impossible to get away with falsifying the voting results this time. Therefore, according to analysts, the authorities will undertake several measures in 2003 to raise the governments popularity. A case in point, Aliev has already begun liberalizing business. The president has also begun taking trips around the country. For example, within the span of three months he visited Nakhchivan, Ganja (the second largest city in Azerbaijan, the residents of which mainly support the opposition) and the Geranboi Region. During these trips, the head of state met with the people, made popular statements, and criticized the actions of the local authorities. He is soon scheduled to go to Sheki and Barda. Aliev also said that next year he would raise the wages of employees in several budget institutions. Judging by the current level of world oil prices, this is no far-fetched promise. Such acts can only be assessed as the beginning of the election campaign.

* * *

We tried to take a brief excursion into the election history of independent Azerbaijan and describe the situation on the eve of the 2003 presidential election campaign. It is difficult to predict what form these first elections in the 21st century will take, whether they will be held according to the tried and tested scenario, or whether they will be genuinely free and democratic. We in turn believe that an absolute condition for ensuring that the elections are democratic and yield an honest result is the impartiality of the Central and lower election commissions. In addition, all the interested parties should function under equal financial conditions and have the same opportunities to conduct election propaganda. Of course, other problems relating to the upcoming voting must also be resolved.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank
 - Advertorial UP - E-MAIL