ODIHR publishes final report on Azerbaijani Presidential Election.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE (ODIHR), has published its final report on the Presidential Elections held in Azerbaijan in October. The Interim Report of the ODIHR International Observation Mission was critical of the election process which it assessed negatively. The Azerbaijani authorities on their part criticised the report and rejected its findings.

The final report highlights serious shortcomings, including in the legislation, in the pre-election environment and during the voting and counting process and makes recommendations to the Azerbaijani government for addressing them.

The report states:

Following an invitation from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the OSCE, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) deployed an Election Observation Mission (EOM) on 28 August for the 9 October 2013 presidential election. The OSCE/ODIHR EOM assessed the electoral process for compliance with OSCE commitments, other international standards for democratic elections, as well as national legislation. For election day observation, the OSCE/ODIHR EOM joined efforts with an observer delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) to form an International Election Observation Mission (IEOM).

The Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued by the IEOM on 10 October 2013 concluded that the election “was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings that need to be addressed in order for Azerbaijan to fully meet its OSCE commitments for genuine and democratic elections.”

Despite recent amendments, the majority of previous OSCE/ODIHR recommendations remains unaddressed in the law, including key provisions related to the composition of election commissions and candidate registration. The overall timeline for the conduct of the election is condensed and was, at times, insufficient to ensure adequate preparations and allow for legal remedy. This underscores the need for continued electoral reform in an inclusive format.

Overall, the Central Election Commission (CEC) efficiently administered the technical preparations for the election, respecting legal deadlines. The CEC held regular sessions open to observers and media, publishing decisions in a timely manner. Nevertheless, the formula in which all election commissions are structured gives pro-government forces a de facto decision-making majority in them. As a result of this, opposition representatives expressed a lack of confidence in the election administration’s impartiality.

Voter lists were extracted from a permanent voter register maintained by the CEC that is based on local residency data. Voters were able to review the lists and request amendments, but the Precinct Election Commissions’ legal basis for making modifications based on door-to-door checks was unclear. The final voter lists included some 1.8 million people less than the voting-age population as recorded by the State Statistical Committee. While the authorities noted that the population data also includes citizens of Azerbaijan residing abroad and foreign citizens, and that such differences could also partly be explained by different methodologies, the lack of public information to explain this gap impacts negatively upon public confidence in the voter lists.

Ten candidates were registered for the election. The incumbent stood for a third term, following constitutional amendments that removed the number of consecutive terms a person can serve as president. Candidates could be registered independently, as well as by political parties. Four nominees were not registered by the CEC for failure to collect the requisite number of valid support signatures. The rejected nominees challenged the CEC expert group’s criteria for disqualifying signatures, but none of the appeals to court were successful. Candidate eligibility requirements to hold a university degree and ten-year residency in-country are at odds with international standards.

Although campaign activities intensified slightly towards election day, overall the campaign was subdued and appeared to generate limited public interest. The CEC pre-approved 152 campaign venues for candidate rallies and authorities interpreted this list as exhaustive, thereby limiting citizens’ freedom of assembly. Given that political contestants’ opportunity to reach out to voters is limited to the formal 22-day campaign period, this interpretation further restricted their ability to campaign. Credible reports of candidate and voter intimidation arose throughout the campaign, raising concerns about candidates’ ability to campaign in a fair atmosphere, as well as voters’ ability to cast their vote “free of fear of retribution,” as required by paragraph 7.7 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

Campaign finance regulations are contained in the Election Code. The CEC informed the OSCE/ODIHR EOM that all candidates complied with legal provisions on campaign financing and the reporting deadlines. The lack of information available for public scrutiny and the absence of audits, however, limited transparency and accountability. There are no provisions for public campaign financing.

Overall, candidates were provided with insufficient access to the media, and a balanced and open exchange of views on political alternatives was lacking. The internet is mostly considered to be free and its usage increasing. However, recent legal amendments made criminal defamation explicit with regard to online content. Detentions, criminal prosecutions, testimony of physical attacks and other forms of pressure on journalists negatively impacted the media environment. The restrictive legal framework and disproportionate coverage of the incumbent President during the campaign period contributed to the lack of a level playing field among candidates. This is at odds with paragraph 7.8 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

Complaints and appeals can be filed by voters, candidates, political parties and blocs and their representatives, observers, and election commissions. The review of election appeals lacked impartiality and failed to provide appellants sufficient guarantees of effective redress. Court decisions were not fully reasoned and the legal basis for adverse decisions on appellant’s motions was not included in court decisions. There was a lack of genuine judicial supervision insofar that procedural deficiencies in the first instance were not addressed by the courts upon appeal.

There were no women candidates for president. Women were significantly underrepresented at all levels of the election administration, including at PECs observed on election day. There were no measures to promote gender balanced membership of election commissions.

In an inclusive process, the CEC and the constituency election commissions (ConECs) registered some 45,868 party and citizen observers. The citizen observer group Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDSC) was not granted legal status and had to accredit observers individually. EMDSC experienced disruptions of training sessions for observers, and following election day, the General Prosecutor Office conducted a search of their premises and informed the EMDSC Director that he was not permitted to travel abroad due to criminal investigations against his organization.

On election day, IEOM observer reports indicated a high turnout; the CEC announced that it was 71.6 per cent. Opening procedures were assessed negatively in 21 per cent of observations, a significantly high number, which indicates serious problems. Procedural shortcomings were frequently noted, including failure to cancel de-registration voter cards and record the number of received ballots and the serial numbers of ballot box seals. IEOM observers assessed the voting process negatively in 12 per cent of polling stations observed. IEOM observers reported clear indications of ballot box stuffing in 39 polling stations and noted a number of procedural violations, bypassing critical measures to ensure accountability and deter potential fraud. There were no differences in IEOM observers’ overall assessment of the processes in polling stations with cameras installed as compared to those without, suggesting that the cameras had only a limited effect.

The counting was assessed in overwhelmingly negative terms, with 58 per cent of observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad, indicating serious problems. In 14 observed counts, IEOM observers reported manipulation of voter list entries, results or protocols, including cases of votes being reassigned to a different candidate. Indications of a further 23 cases of ballot box stuffing were noted during the count. In 42 counts observed, PECs had difficulties completing the results protocol, which in a number of cases was not completed by pen as required. In 15 counts observed, the official protocol form had been signed by PEC members before the results had been established. IEOM and candidate observers frequently did not receive copies of protocols upon request and in more than half of the observed cases a copy of the results protocol was not put on public display in the polling station as required by law.

Tabulation was observed in 96 of 125 ConECs. In 23 ConECs, the process was assessed negatively. Key procedures on the checking of precinct-level results and their processing were frequently not followed. IEOM observers negatively assessed the transparency of the tabulation and were not granted full co-operation from the ConECs in many cases. Several serious procedural shortcomings were noted, including PECs filling in protocols at the ConEC premises (observed in 18 cases) or correcting protocols without a formal ConEC decision (observed in 11 cases). On a positive note and in what constitutes a significant transparency measure, the CEC began posting preliminary election results by polling stations on its website on election night and updated them thereafter.

There were limited post-election day complaints. The main opposition candidate twice challenged the election results, first in a general complaint regarding alleged violations in 1,085 polling stations across 95 ConECs, and second in an appeal of the results as announced by the CEC. Both challenges were rejected on technical grounds, as the complainant did not submit original affidavits. The final results were announced by the CEC on 17 October and on 19 October confirmed by the Constitutional Court with appeals still pending.

This report offers a number of recommendations to support efforts to bring elections fully in line with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections. The OSCE/ODIHR stands ready to assist the authorities and civil society of Azerbaijan to further improve the electoral process and to address the recommendations contained in this and previous reports.

The report in full is available here.