The 2013 presidential election in Azerbaijan set off a row between different groups of election monitors. The European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) all had groups of parliamentarians in Azerbaijan, while the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) mission consisted of a much larger group of experts, some of whom were based for a much longer time in the country.

Strangely, what claimed to be the official result was released a day before the voting began via a phone app run by the electoral commission. The government said that the release was a trial run based on hypothetical votes in one electoral district, released by mistake.

But the story added to the impression that the election result was pre-determined. The election saw the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, re-elected with over 80% of the vote while his nearest rival got about 5%.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and European Parliament delegations issued a joint report after the election while the OSCE/ODIHR team published a separate set of findings. On other occasions, for example after last year’s presidential election in Russia, PACE and the OSCE have issued joint reports.

‘We did not come to Azerbaijan to give lessons’

The PACE/European Parliament report started off with a sentence on the purpose of their mission:

We did not come to Azerbaijan to give lessons or to measure the rate of democratic development in the country but rather to witness and encourage the transition process towards democracy that the country is experiencing.

The statement went on:

Overall around election day we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process.

On the other hand, the statement called for respect for freedom of expression.

‘Allegations of candidate and voter intimidation’

Despite the caveat, the tone of the PACE/EP statement was completely different to the OSCE’s, whose preliminary findings opened as follows:

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.

There was also a delegation of former members of the US House of Representatives, who said voting was clean and efficient.

One commentator, working for a pro-democracy NGO based in London, described the PACE/EP statement as ‘shameful’ while ESI, a Berlin-based think tank, suggested that the episode marked the end of election monitoring as we know it. ESI had earlier published a report alleging that the Council of Europe representatives had been influenced by lavish Azerbaijani hospitality.

The leader of the European Parliament delegation was Italian MP Pino Arlacchi. According to a conservative Italian news magazine, he told a private meeting in the European Parliament that the EP/PACE report had come to such diverging conclusions from those of the OSCE in order to “defend” Italian interests in the region. Pino Arlacchi is a divisive figure. He is a sociology professor, anti-mafia campaigner and controversial former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. He has changed parties in both the Italian and European Parliaments.

‘So-called experts’

Arlacchi, asked about the discrepancy between the two sets of conclusions by the Azerbaijan Press Agency, attacked the credibility of the OSCE team:

It is very simple. We were 66 parliamentarians belonging to 3 different Assemblies- CoE, OSCE and EP. We all observed election freely and have positive opinion about the elections. ODIHR consists of so-called experts with no political responsibilities, who were not elected by anybody. So it is easy to manipulate them. Our evaluation has been done on the sense of responsibility, also being parliamentarians we know elections very well much better than experts who want just to be sure that they will get their next job in next occasion.

The controversy rumbled on after the European Parliament adopted a Green party motion contradicting the PACE/EP conclusions and criticising the election. The head of Azerbaijan’s delegation to Euronest, a parliamentary assembly to promote ties between the EU and Eastern Europe, announced in October that Azerbaijan would suspend its cooperation with the forum. In a letter to Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament, he talked of the EP’s alleged “plans to create ulterior subversion and unrest” implying that the EP was trying to turn Azerbaijan into Libya or Syria.

David Lidington, for the UK government, shared the concerns of the ODIHR findings and avoided mention of the PACE/EP findings.

Author: Ben Smith