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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

 

Obstacles to free elections in Azerbaijan

From Radio Free Europe:

The following day, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) extended an invitation to several prominent opposition parties to attend a roundtable discussion of the political situation on 4 May. (Insofar as the nucleus of YeS is comprised of individuals, rather than political parties, it was not invited to that roundtable.) But despite YAP's stated readiness for dialogue, recent statements by both Azerbaijani officials and Council of Europe experts suggest that the former are reluctant to remove possible restrictions on the holding of democratic elections.

In the eyes of the opposition, the primary obstacle to fair elections is the current election law, in particular those paragraphs that specify the composition of the Central Election Commission and parallel regional-level bodies. That issue was the subject of protracted and heated arguments in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential ballot not only between the opposition and the authorities but also between individual opposition parties (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 May 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, and 13 June 2003).

Representatives of opposition parties are far outnumbered on the Central Election Commission by members of YAP, which has a majority in the present parliament, and on lower-level commissions by district officials who may not necessarily be YAP members but who owe their positions to their loyalty to the authorities.

In recent months, Azerbaijani officials have made conflicting statements, some suggesting that the composition of the Central Election Commission could be changed, while others rule out any such changes. President Ilham Aliyev made clear on 27 April that he considers such changes unnecessary and potentially destabilizing. The website day.az quoted him as saying that "we should act in such a way as to ensure that destructive forces do not appropriate a mechanism which would enable them to disrupt the conduct of the election." But two days later, the same website quoted presidential administration Social-Political Department head Ali Hasanov as saying that "we are ready introduce into the Electoral Code any amendments" that will contribute to fair and democratic elections.

A second obstacle to free elections is the restrictions currently in force on the freedom of assembly, especially in Baku. Parliament deputy Alimamed Nuriev was quoted by the online daily exho-az.com on 30 April as saying that the Baku municipal authorities will soon issue a list of venues where the opposition may convene "large-scale gatherings." Some parliament deputies, however, advocate amending the existing legislation on freedom of assembly, which they reportedly consider "excessively liberal."

Finally, the opposition and the Council of Europe are perturbed at the repeated delay in launching an independent national public broadcaster. That station was supposed to be operative by June, but its director, former parliament deputy Ismail Omarov, told journalists last week that it will not be ready to begin broadcasting before August-September at the earliest, according to zerkalo.az on 28 April.

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