Azerbaijan has received generally good marks from international observers for conducting clean elections to fill 10 parliamentary seats.
The May 13 special elections were do-over votes necessitated by irregularities during parliamentary balloting last November. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Preliminary totals showed the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) winning five of the 10 seats up for grabs. Non-partisans won three races, while the remaining two went to representatives of what is considered the loyal opposition Ilyas Ismayilov, the leader of the Adalat (Justice) Party and Fazail Ibrahimli, a former MP and deputy chairman of Civil Solidarity Party. The Central Election Commission (CEC) reported average turnout in the 30 percent range.
The YAP now controls 61 seats in the 125-seat Azerbaijani parliament. Nominal independents, many of whom have connections to President Ilham Aliyev's administration hold the bulk of the remaining seats. Radical opposition parties have only a token presence in parliament. One opposition leader, Lala Shovket, the Liberal Party leader, rejected her mandate as the winner of the race in the 15th electoral district in November. A re-run vote for this vacant seat has yet to be announced.
A dispute over whether or not to participate in the repeat elections prompted a split within Azerbaijan's radical opposition movement, the Azadliq bloc. Most parties, including the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), opted to boycott the repeat voting. Meanwhile, the Musavat Party decided to participate, but did not gain any seats.
As with the November 6 election, PFPA and Musavat leaders claimed that the May 13 voting was rigged. "The re-run [voting] did not show the will of the nation," said PFPA leader Ali Kerimli at a May 15 news conference. "Authorities ignored recommendations of OSCE and managed to cheat the international community again."
Authorities vigorously disputed the opposition claims. The Today.Az web site quoted Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov as saying May 16 that no "major irregularities" were observed during the repeat elections. "There were some doubtful nuances that have already been investigated," Panahov added. "Most of the appeals related to these nuances have not been proved correct."
International observers appeared to agree that the voting was conducted in a largely free and fair manner. In addition, the results of a USfunded exit poll organized by International Republican Institute did not significantly deviate from the CEC's results.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) election observation mission noted "improvements in voting process", the delegation's head, Leo Platvoet, said at a news conference in Baku on May 14. A statement released by the mission indicated that there were no problems with registration of candidates. It went on to lament the fact that voters were deprived of a "pluralistic choice" because of the boycott carried out by most main opposition parties. In addition, balloting on election day was conducted "at a proper and professional level," the statement said.
Meanwhile, a statement issued May 15 by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights called the vote "a welcome step toward increased transparency." The ODIHR assessment lauded authorities for "inclusive candidate registration" and "a largely unimpeded campaign." It also stressed a need for further electoral reforms, and cited several "issues of concern, including the composition of election commissions, instances of interference by local authorities in the election process and the handling of complaints and appeals by election commissions and courts."
The PACE and ODIHR assessments are welcome news for the Aliyev administration, which had come under fire for heavy-handed behavior during the November voting. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In recent weeks, the Azerbaijani leader has gone on a charm offensive designed to improve the nation's democratization image, and avoid possible punitive action within PACE and other Western multilateral forums. During his late April visit to Washington, DC, Aliyev met with representatives of leading non-governmental organizations, expressing a desire for a "constructive dialogue" that would hasten the pace of civil society development in Azerbaijan.