Azerbaijani opposition considers election code. “If no amendments are made to the Code, there are calls to boycott the 2013 elections.” 1

The Azerbaijan Public Chamber on June 21st held a round table discussion on the proposed amendments to the Electoral Code of Azerbaijan.

About 60 participants attended the public debate which was moderated by Mr. Vidadi Mirkamal, the chairman-in-office for the Coordination Council of the Public Chamber. There was one keynote speaker, Mr. Hafiz Hasanov, an elections expert, who presented his views on the general electoral environment in the country as well as his suggestions for potential amendments, generating further discussion.

After the panelists spoke, several party leaders, NGO heads and experts were involved in an interactive discussion that brought forward a wide range of electoral concerns. This included the seven priority recommendations made by the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission following the 2010 Parliamentary Elections that left all major opposition parties without a single seat in the parliament.

Asked to comment about the results of the meeting, Razi Narullayev, Deputy Chairperson for Foreign Affairs of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan saidWe were able to agree on the establishment of a Working Group with representatives of political parties, civil society and independent experts in order to develop specific proposals on the priorities and potential amendments to be made to the Electoral Code of Azerbaijan. The participants of the roundtable decided that the Working Group should have the amendments prepared by mid-September of this year so that they can be finalized and submitted to Parliament for the October session.’

During the round table, participants noted the importance of cooperation with the OSCE/ODIHR and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Participants decided to also send the potential amendments to the above-mentioned agencies as well as to conduct consultations with them during the preparations.

Ali Karimli, member of the Coordination Council of the Public Chamber and chairman of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, stated his support for the establishment of the Working Group. He said, “Frankly speaking, I’m eager to criticize the positions of international organizations on this issue. As per usual, international organizations observing elections in Azerbaijan, in particular OSCE prepares a set of clear and objective recommendations. The recommendations expose the drawbacks and suggest what to do. But there are no binding mechanisms to put the recommendations into practice and they do not take any steps to follow-up on the implementation of their recommendations.”

Member of the Coordination Council of the Public Chamber, and chairman of the “Musavat” Party, Isa Gambar, also expressed support for the establishment of the Working Group, stating that “We have been in a paradoxical situation for 19 years and it seems to be clear that without a change of power in Azerbaijan no free and just elections are possible. We accept only one way for a transition of power and that is through elections. This is why all our efforts have been directed to the elections. The political democratic forces and civil society in Azerbaijan are quite strong. We must be able to realize this potential.”

Panelists and participants agreed that the current electoral code does not provide grounds for holding fair, free and democratic elections. Therefore, a lot of suggestions were generated about how to improve electoral legislation to ensure democratic presidential elections in Azerbaijan in October 2013.  Consensus was achieved on most of the proposed amendments. The participants were unified in the assertion that if the current Electoral Code remains in place, the opposition should not go to elections. For this reason, all were strongly united in the push for amendments and the preparation of a single set of priority recommendations.

Three main problems were highlighted by the speakers during the discussions:   the need for equal representation of political parties in the composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC), the Constituency Election Commissions (ConECs), and the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs);  the need to lift the barriers for the candidate registration process; focusing primarily on the biased investigations into the irregularities of registration and verification procedures made by the expert groups of the CEC, ConECs and PECs. Participants argued that the expert groups are composed of the members and employees of the commissions and are under full control of the ruling party. The expert group often disqualifies the signatures of undesirable candidates and even uses small discrepancies in the documentation as an excuse to reject the registration of candidates. The suggested solution made by the round table is to outsource the verification procedures for candidate registration to a group from outside the commission to ensure neutrality; and the complaints mechanism and the rights of plaintiffs to a fair hearing as well as to ensure timely and fair consideration of complaints.

Many of the participants insisted that apart from the establishment of a legal framework for free and just elections, the practical implementation of the law is also very important. Until there are fair elections, the issues surrounding democracy in Azerbaijan will not be resolved. Moreover, the current political and pre-election environment is not conducive to legitimate elections; there are problems with freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and media freedom – all conditions that contribute to just elections.

CEW asked Nurullaev if the Publıc Chamber is optimistic about the adoption of the proposed amendments by the Azerbaijani Parliament? He replied that the Pubic Chamber is aware of the fact that it is not going to be an easy process. “But we shall use all means possible to make the adoption of the amendments a reality. The PC believes the amendments can pass and therefore will work closely with the OSCE and the Venice Commission to persuade the Azerbaijani authorities to adopt the amendments made by OSCE/ODIHR and supported by the Azerbaijani opposition. If no amendments are made to the Code, there are calls to boycott the 2013 elections. This call for a boycott by the opposition should also motivate as well as stimulate the international organizations to which Azerbaijan has obligations to intensify the talks with the relevant bodies of Azerbaijan to achieve the proposed amendments.”

Report prepared by Karina Gould for CEW.