Azerbaijan: To Media Cries of "Bias," International Observers Criticize Presidential Vote
Azerbaijan's incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, may have gained a land-slide reelection victory on October 9 (with 84.73 percent of the vote, according to official data), but international observers argue that the election fell far short of the democratic standards the country has pledged to uphold.
In an October 10 statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) international observation mission, which dispatched 30 long-term observers to Azerbaijan, said that the elections were "undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates."
Particularly when it came time for the count. “The counting was assessed in overwhelmingly negative terms, with 58 percent of  observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad, indicating serious problems,” the OSCE/ODIHR mission's preliminary statement reads. "In 15 observed counts, [observers] reported manipulation of voter list entries, results or protocols, including cases of votes being reassigned to a different candidate."
The problems started from the get-go, the group said. Nearly 20 percent of the 125 polling stations observed got negative marks for their opening procedures -- another sign of much amiss, the report found. The voting process itself scored poorly in 11-percent of the observed polling stations, with “clear indications of ballot box stuffing in 37 polling stations and a number of other procedural violations.”
By contrast, Central Election Commission Chairperson Mazahir Panahov
asserted on October 9 that there were no “serious violations [during
the elections] which could affect the final results.” According to the preliminary official tally, Aliyev's main rival, Jamil Hasanli, supported by the coalition National Council of Democratic Forces, received a mere 5.27 percent of the vote. The eight other candidates allegedly failed to get more than three percent.
But the problems cited by the OSCE/ODIHR-mission observers went beyond the count.
While recognizing that the Central Election Commission "efficiently administered the technical preparations for the election," the mission said that “credible reports of candidate and voter intimidation arose throughout the campaign, raising concerns about candidates’ ability to campaign in a fair atmosphere.” Media-coverage prejudice in favor of President Aliyev, criminal prosecutions and detentions of journalists and reported attacks on media darkened that picture further. The "significant" problems observed on election day itself "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," it wrote.
Not exactly what Aliyev's supporters among Azerbaijani media had in mind.
As the observers announced their findings at Baku's Hyatt Regency Hotel, a large group of pro-government journalists screamed out accusations of bias. The mission head, Tana de Zulueta, an Italian politician by background, was not able to talk and left the room as a result.
Other words, arguably, probably sounded sweeter to these reporters' ears.
Immediately after the preliminary results were announced late on October 9, Ilham Aliyev, who largely had ignored voters throughout the campaign, delivered a statement to thank the people "who gave me great confidence and reelected me," and also to give himself a pat on the back. During his ten years in office, "We have done a great job in the name of development and progress," he informed readers.
Meanwhile, opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli, claiming that Aliyev has "usurped power," has demanded that the election results be thrown out because of “their total falsifications.”
Hasanli told reporters at an October 10 press-conference that his campaign has appealed to the court demanding the results' nullification. It also has received permission to hold a rally in Baku on October 12. He emphasized that only peaceful protests will be used.
“The election is not the end of our fight,” he said.