The recent presidential elections in Azerbaijan – which concluded last week with the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, winning nearly 85% of the vote – were deemed “free, fair and transparent” by an observer delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Meanwhile, the OCSCE’s preliminary report notes:
The 9 October 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
So, what gives? Most international and local human rights and monitoring groups reporting on the election and the voting have been unanimous in their condemnation of an environment rife with voter and media intimidation. In an excellent piece by Rebecca Vincent for Al Jazeera, she explains how very little international media attention is focused on Azerbaijan, even though some of the political and human rights issues of concern in Azerbaijan – like results being released one day before the start of the vote and jamming of alternate political views – would normally be garner extensive international media attention if they occurred elsewhere. In the same article, Vincent notes that the PACE delegation was composed of politicians and not electoral experts, which could in part explain their assessment. In an awkward statement from the European Union, Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, seeks to somehow reconcile the completely differing views expressed by the OSCE and PACE – the outcome is a non-controversial statement in which she states that the EU “look[s] forward to continuing our close cooperation with Azerbaijan as we pursue together our important bilateral agenda.”
Interestingly, a couple of days before the vote actually took place, a “glitch” in the results reporting system actually caught international media attention. A full day before voting began, the mobile application supposed to provide access to results showed final results, with landslide victory for Aliyev. And while the makers of this application, Happy Baku, claim that the glitch was due to an unfortunate error. A statement on the company website reads “Our company […] forgot to inform the users on testing of the software[…]” The company claims to have used the names of 2013 candidates and results data from a previous election, but those claims are both hard to verify and difficult to believe. It also points to a serious procedural flaw – this kind of “mistake” should never happen. Showing “results” of a vote prior to people casting their ballots is a very concerning issue, both from a security and reliability of results standpoint (is Happy Baku really able to deliver clear and error-free results, given this incredible mistake?) and from an optics point of view. There is a reason why mature democracies do not reveal results until all polls are closed and voters are done casting their ballot – knowing the results can easily influence voter decisions.
Unfortunately, it was primarily this results “glitch” that caught international media attention, and very little was reported about the undemocratic nature of the vote. Meanwhile, Amnesty International declared that “[t]he persecution is so widespread and frequent it’s difficult to assess just how bad the current situation really is”, and the Azeri group Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center said in its report of preliminary findings that “Recorded violations of law and political situation prior to the elections did not allow for holding democratic elections, and the 9 October 2013 Presidential Elections took place in violation of national legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan and international standards and cannot be considered free or fair.” It appears that, unfortunately, not only have Azeris been robbed of the opportunity to cast their vote in a free and fair manner, but that the entire process was rife with intimidation, unfairness and deprivation of basic rights and liberties such as freedom of expression, of association and of assembly. While thousands are reported to protest in Baku, the lack of international attention – both from the media and from political players – to the blatantly undemocratic nature of the regime in Azerbaijan is troublesome.