Azerbaijan’s Campaign Ends, Attention Now Focusing on Post-Election Period
By Rovshan Ismayilov: 11/04/05

With campaigning having wrapped up for Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election on November 6, authorities and opposition leaders are focusing on post-election plans.

Perhaps more than the actual results, the conduct of the balloting will be closely watched both inside and outside Azerbaijan. Foreign governments, including the United States and Turkey, have exerted considerable pressure on Azerbaijani officials to conduct a free and fair vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Meanwhile, some international non-governmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have already raised alarms about unfair electoral practices. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Azerbaijani officials insist that the election process, especially ballot tallying, will be transparent. On November 3 President Ilham Aliyev, announced during a cabinet meeting, that “all necessary conditions for free-and-fair elections are created. I signed all the necessary decrees. We will conduct normal elections and should plan for the future.” The decrees referred to by the president provided for the inking of voters’ hands to prevent multiple voting, and the easing of requirements for local NGOs to join in election monitoring initiatives. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Opposition leaders do not share Aliyev’s confidence that all will go smoothly on election day, and that vote-counting will be free of manipulation. At a final campaign news conference on November 3, Ali Kerimli, a leader of the opposition Azadlig bloc, complained that the presidential decrees were not being implemented, adding that opposition candidates have been at a disadvantage throughout the campaign. “The principle of equality was broken [as] opposition candidates had limited access to media, rallies were banned, as well as meetings of candidates with their voters. At every rally attempt, we had about 200 of our supporters arrested [and] hundreds beaten. Candidates were threatened, and made to withdraw [from the race],” Kerimli said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The last day of the campaign appeared to underscore Kerimli’s claims. While the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party held a final political rally, followed by a concert, on Galaba Square in Baku, city authorities declined to grant a permit to the Azadlig bloc to hold a similar rally at a square near the Narimanov cinema. Lacking permission, opposition leaders opted not to attempt to hold an unsanctioned rally. Instead, Azadlig leaders, in particular Kerimli and Isa Gambar, concentrated November 4 on giving interviews to local and foreign journalists, while the bloc’s volunteers disseminated campaign materials.

Supporters of Azerbaijan’s other main opposition alliance, known as Yeni Siyassat (YeS), also saturated election constituencies with campaign workers. “All our candidates and their volunteers are now in their constituencies getting their messages out to people. For example my election team is going to finish distribution of my address to voters to each family in the constituency,” Eldar Namazov, one of the leaders of YeS running from Yasamal first constituency #15 told EurasiaNet correspondent on November 4.

During the closing hours of the campaign Azadlig leaders, along with Avaz Temirkhan, a Liberal Party representative, sought to focus voter attention on the government’s response to a supposed coup attempt in mid October, which included the arrests of several top-level government officials. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Officials claim that the detained officials, including former health minister Ali Insanov, intended to help Rasul Guliyev -- the exiled head of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) and another leader of the Azadlig bloc -- seize power. Kerimli, Gambar and Temirkhan were adamant in insisting that the arrests had nothing to do with Guliyev and his recent unsuccessful attempt to return Azerbaijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. They instead suggested that officials were trying to divert attention away from high-level corruption within the government.

Sardar Jalaloglu, the DPA deputy chief, indicated on November 2 that Guliyev was unlikely to make another attempt at returning to Baku before the election, despite the fact that he is a parliamentary candidate. Guliyev is wanted by authorities for supposed abuse of authority while serving as a government official. While Guliyev is following the campaign from London, police searched his campaign office in the Khatai district of Baku on November 3, the Turan news agency reported. Information concerning the probable cause, or the results of the search was not immediately available.

The next few days promise to be calm, said Gambar, adding that the opposition’s energy will now be directed to election monitoring efforts. In addition, foreign election monitors continue to arrive in Azerbaijan, including OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ 600-strong observer mission. On November 3, OSCE/ODIHR and the US embassy conducted training sessions for monitors. Meanwhile, opposition supporters have voiced complaints that some monitors have been prevented from entering the country. One such case reportedly involved Irena Lasota, the head of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, who was reportedly refused a visa. Lasota was outspoken in criticizing the government’s conduct of the 2003 presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Kerimli expressed confidence that Azadlig would run well in the election. “The population supports Azadlig alliance, and if the election is free and fair, we will get not less than 75 seats out of 125,” Kerimli said. Some independent observers are dubious of Kerimli’s claim. Regardless, Gambar pledged that Azadlig members would mount protests if they determined that the voting was not free and fair. “In the event of total falsification, the Azadlig bloc will hold daily rallies at Galaba Square [in Baku]” starting on November 8, Gambar said.

Any such attempt to stage a mass opposition rally would set-up a potentially violent clash with authorities. Azerbaijani police will be on high alert through November 10, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov told journalists on October 29. Yashar Aliyev, Baku’s deputy police chief told ANS television on November 3 that the high alert will involve “enhanced security measures for the protection of government buildings and foreign embassies, as well as foreign organization offices in Baku, foreign observers and state and private television stations.” On election day November 6, large contingents of police will be posted near all polling places. If there are no disturbances, the heavy police presence will be lifted during the early morning of November 7.

Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, a Baku-based human rights organization, expressed concern that the enhanced security measures could hamper the conduct of a free-and-fair vote. Citing authorities’ suppression of recent opposition rallies, Yunus said the massive presence of police on the streets could intimidate many voters. “People might prefer to stay at home, than go out to vote,” the Turan news agency quoted her as saying.

President Aliyev, meanwhile, has downplayed the possibility that the election would produce unrest. And in an October 31 interview with Turkish journalists, the president emphasized that regardless of the parliamentary election results, Azerbaijan’s existing policies were unlikely to change. “The parliamentary elections are not decisive in term of power in Azerbaijan,” Aliyev said.

Editor’s Note: Rovshan Ismaylov is free-lance journalist based in Baku

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Azerbaijan's parliament building sits on a hill overlooking Baku. Voters will select the 125 members Sunday. Azerbaijan's parliament is currently dominated by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, which has led to charges that it is no longer independent of the country's executive body. (Yigal Schleifer for Eurasianet)