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Azerbaijan: Presidential Elections 2003

Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, October 13, 2003

The Central Election Commission and Registration of Candidates

With the participation of the OSCE's ODHIR, the Azerbaijani government undertook major revisions to its Election Code, consolidating five previous codes into a one central code, which was adopted by the national parliament on May 27, 2003.8 The adoption of the code followed months of negotiations over some of its most controversial clauses, and the Azerbaijani opposition ultimately boycotted those negotiations, stating that the government had refused to negotiate in good faith.9

Although the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and OSCE/ODHIR have assessed the Electoral Code as meeting international standards in most respects, their final analysis also points to some major shortcomings.10 Among the most fundamental flaws is the composition of the fifteen-person Central Election Commission (CEC), which takes the most important decisions affecting the election, such as the registration of presidential candidates. The Electoral Code apportions six seats to the ruling YAP, three seats to opposition parties in the parliament, three seats to the "independent" parties in the parliament, which currently have a pro-government orientation, and three seats to the opposition not represented in the parliament. By combining the six YAP votes, the three pro-government "independent" votes, and the vote of the Communist Party member from the opposition within parliament, an effective two-thirds majority has been formed on the CEC. This shuts out the opposition from the decision-making process at the CEC and is exactly what was feared by the international experts advising the Azerbaijani government on its Electoral Code. This disproportionate representation is replicated in the composition of many local election commissions.

The CEC's lack of independence was clearly demonstrated during the registration process for presidential candidates. It disqualified several candidates on grounds criticized by the OSCE/ODHIR observer mission, which stated that "CEC procedures were irregular and substantive reasons for refusal were not persuasive."11

The CEC registered both Heidar and Ilham Aliev as candidates, as well as four other minor pro-governmental candidates.12 It registered several major opposition candidates, including Etibar Mamedov of the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (ANIP), Ali Kerimli of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan-Reformers faction, Isa Gambar of Musavat ("Equality"), and three other opposition candidates.13

However, other major opposition candidates were arbitrarily rejected. The most egregious case involved the head of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP), Rasul Guliev, a former speaker of parliament who fell out with President Aliev in 1996, left Azerbaijan, and lives in exile in the United States. The CEC rejected Guliev's candidacy on the inaccurate basis that he was a U.S. "green card" holder, and refused to reconsider its decision after documentation was provided that Guliev in fact had refugee, not residency, status in the United States.14 Also rejected was the application of Eldar Namazov, the former head of President Aliev's presidential secretariat, on the minor ground that he had not authenticated his identification documents before a notary-even though on a separate occasion, the CEC allowed a pro-governmental candidate to revise his application for such minor errors.15

The CEC has also sided with the government in most of its pronouncements, even criticizing the opposition after four separate opposition rallies on September 21 were disrupted by police violence that left scores of people injured (see below). After the September 21 abuses, the CEC released a statement which adopted the position of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on the clashes, unfairly blaming the opposition for the unrest with a fictious version of events: "the participants of the protest ignored demands made by the police and reacted aggressively to the local population, insulting them, as well as trying to cause clashes. The protesters also called on the local inhabitants for civil disobedience and the overthrow of state institutions."16

8 The consolidated electoral code is titled the Electoral Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Venice Commission provides assistance to states in adopting constitutions that conform to Europe's standards.

9 International mediators who worked on the Electoral Code with the government complained to Human Rights Watch that the "boycott" culture of the opposition contributed to the difficulty in seeking compromise.

10 OSCE/ODHIR and European Commission for Democracy through Law (COE Venice Commission), Joint Final Assessment of the Electoral Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Opinion no. 214/2002, September 1, 2003.

11 OSCE/ODHIR Election Observation Mission to Azerbaijan, Presidential Election 2003, Interim Report 2, September 26, 2003.

12 The other pro-government candidates registered and their affiliations were: Abutalib Samedov (Alliance for the Sake of Azerbaijan); Khafiz Hajiyev (Modern Musavat); Gudrat Gasanguliyev (Popular Front of Azerbaijan-Uniters Faction); and Yunus Aliev (National Unity).

13 The other opposition candidates registered and their affiliations were: Lala Shovket (National Unity); Sabir Rustamkhanli (Civil Solidarity), and Araz Alizade (Social Democratic Party).

14 See Azerbaijan Federation of Human Rights Organizations, "Report 1 about the Monitoring of the Situation before the Presidential Elections in Azerbaijan," June 15-August 31, 2003, p. 4.

15 The candidate is Togrul Ibragimli. See ibid., p. 5. Other opposition candidates who were rejected but whose rejection did not draw equal controversy included former Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov, currently living in exile in Moscow; Elshad Musaev, on the grounds that his political party "Great Azerbaijan" was not registered with the Ministry of Justice; Zakir Tagiev; and Rufat Agaev, the former head of executive authority for Baku.

16 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Azerbaijan Report, September 26, 2003.

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October 13, 2003