Azerbaijan's 2005 Elections: Lost Opportunity
Europe Briefing N°40
21 Nov 2005
Azerbaijan's elections, in which pro-government parties won an overwhelming majority, once again failed to meet international standards. The opposition cried foul, organising peaceful street demonstrations and filing court complaints. Though President Ilham Aliyev has pledged reforms, his actions remain tentative. If most of the results are confirmed, Azerbaijan will not have the strong pro-reform parliament it needs to push through serious change -- particularly tough anti-corruption measures. The elections were a lost opportunity for a bold step away from post-Soviet autocracy towards a democratic future. Popular apathy suggests grass roots-driven change is unlikely in the near term. If the government fails to organise real dialogue with the opposition and hold new elections in constituencies where rigging was most blatant, however, Western countries and organisations should consider measures to make it clear to President Aliyev that they are serious when they say the quality of relations depends on movement towards genuine democracy.
The oil-rich country failed on 6 November to demonstrate commitment to democracy and reform. Instead, international observers found major nation-wide fraud, including ballot stuffing and improper counting and tabulation. Only 47 per cent of the electorate turned out -- as compared with 69 per cent in 2000, suggesting serious disenchantment with a system that has repeatedly produced fraudulent elections. The opposition vows to convert its political struggle into peaceful street protest but with the government promising to repress any revolution-tinted action, the potential for violence and instability remains.
It did not have to be this way. With a booming economy and solid approval rating, President Aliyev and his administration could have welcomed a more diverse and legitimate parliament. The first stages of the campaign had been promising. Over 2,000 candidates registered, and some 1,550 stood on election day. Access to the media was better, with even some of the most radical opposition figures allowed free airtime. However, violence and refusal to allow the opposition to hold rallies in central Baku kept a lid on the democratic process. Intervention by local officials promoting candidates and warning state employees against supporting the opposition maintained an atmosphere of intimidation. The playing field was always tilted towards pro-government candidates.
President Aliyev is trying to gain acceptance internationally as a reformist leader of a country with significant geostrategic and economic potential and close Euro-Atlantic ties. Under his leadership, some positive measures have indeed been implemented, such as the release of political prisoners and greater diversity in the electronic media. In many other sectors, however, reform has been merely cosmetic. State institutions that should serve as the foundation of a system based on the rule of law and democracy need strengthening. The president has not dismantled the corrupt patronage networks that drive both politics and the economy. Instead, growing oil wealth is reinforcing the position of deeply entrenched, corrupt elites. As long as they are in power, Azerbaijan will remain a rentier state struggling to achieve democratic change.
To wage a systemic anti-corruption effort and maintain stability, the president and his government require a strong popular mandate, a politically active citizenry, and robust judicial and law enforcement bodies committed to upholding the rule of law. Democratic elections are a key component in this equation. The following steps are needed in the next weeks:
The Central Election Commission (CEC) must adjudicate complaints received by voters, candidates, political parties and observers. A start has been made in a few constituencies but results should be annulled in all where there have been falsifications, and the General Prosecutor should investigate and prosecute where there have been serious complaints of criminal offences before, on or after election day. The courts should swiftly and transparently bring perpetrators to justice.
The opposition should use all legal means available to seek redress for election violations, including the CEC and the judicial complaint and appeals mechanisms. Any public expressions of dissatisfaction must remain non-violent. The opposition's leaders and senior government officials, including from the presidential administration, should enter a dialogue on how to resolve the impasse over the elections.
Local authorities should allow freedom of assembly and authorise rallies. Police should apply professional crowd control methods, refraining from excessive force and arbitrary detentions.
President Aliyev should set a date for repeat elections where results have been annulled and issue a decree calling for all remaining issues listed as problematic by the Venice Commission (Council of Europe) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/ Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in their October 2005 final opinion on the Election Code to be addressed. He should also dismiss heads of local executive committees who have illegally interfered in the elections process.
Once a democratically elected parliament goes into session, the government as a whole should reinvigorate its reform and anti-corruption efforts.
Azerbaijan's international partners, the U.S., Russia, and the European Union and its member states, have accepted fraudulent elections in the past in the belief that the regime of first the elder Aliyev and then his son would maintain stability, fight terrorism and provide a secure flow of oil. This time the international community has issued more critical statements, and it should continue pressing for a democratic outcome of the 2005 parliamentary elections.
It should set up an ambassadorial task force in Baku to continue to press on elections-related issues.
It should urge the CEC and courts to rule fairly on complaints, demand that neither law enforcement nor the opposition instigate violence, and if opposition activists are detained on politically motivated charges, press for their release.
If the government does not continue to take the steps recommended above to redress election violations, and particularly if it uses violence or arrests against peaceful opposition demonstrators, the following action should be considered:
by the EU, putting on hold its talks with the government about its new Action Plan;
by the U.S. and others, initiating a diplomatic embargo on visits by President Aliyev and his key ministers; and
by the Council of Europe, taking steps toward suspending Azerbaijan's membership.
Baku/Brussels, 21 November 2005