27. Oct. 2005
Azerbaijan - Inked fingers and
foreign NGOs for free and fair elections
Mina Muradova and Rufat Abbasov
Freelance journalists based in Baku.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has signed a decree that meets two longstanding demands by the international community for ensuring a free-and-fair parliamentary vote on November 6. The first directs the Central Election Commission to draw up plans for applying indelible ink to voters' fingers to prevent multiple-voting; the second asks parliament to lift a ban on election monitoring by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than 30 percent of their funding from foreign sources.
In a meeting with government officials and election commission heads to announce the October 25 decree, Aliyev concentrated largely on the decision to ink voters' fingers, emphasizing that the general election campaign was proceeding "successfully.""[W]e do not feel a real need for this because of [the] availability of voter cards," Aliyev was reported as saying by the state news agency AzerTAj. "[W]e cannot be satisfied with the distribution of voter cards because, according to some reports, one voter received several."
"We should consider the possibility of marking fingers with invisible ink at the time of receiving voting lists on ... election day," so that there will be no doubts about whether "transparent elections" have been held, Aliyev added. He called the measure "exceptional and temporary."
During an October 26 telephone conversation with US Vice President Dick Cheney, Aliyev insisted that "every condition has been created for the transparent and fair conduct of the election in the country," according to the Azerbaijani presidential press service.
Also on October 26, the Central Election Commission (CEC) formally announced that it will ink voters' fingers. Each precinct election commission will be provided with ink to mark voters' fingers by November 4, along with a special ultraviolet lamp to check that the mark has been properly applied, CEC Deputy Chairperson Svetlana Gasimova told EurasiaNet. The CEC has requested that embassies in Azerbaijan, including that of the United States, and missions of international organizations, help with supplies of ink and special lamps. Each of the 5,000 voting precincts will be provided with two pens to apply the ink. Gasimova stated that she does not anticipate any difficulties providing precincts with the necessary supplies by election day.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission had repeatedly urged the government to allow finger inking and election monitoring by foreign NGOs. Commenting on the president's decree, Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis stated that the proposed measures would enhance observation of the elections and, by inking fingers, help promote the "one person - one vote" principle. "If I were entitled to vote on 6 November, I would feel reassured to have my finger - and everybody else's finger - inked," Davis said in an October 27 statement. "I would know that nobody else had voted twice, and that is my basic right in an election."
In a statement on October 26, US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack anticipated the Council of Europe's assessment, calling on Azerbaijan to implement "as quickly as possible" the measures outlined by President Aliyev, and, in a reference to past clashes between opposition protestors and police in Baku, to observe peaceful freedom of assembly. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The decree came as a marked departure from two weeks of arrests and accusations against cabinet members, government officials and opposition members charged with plotting to overthrow the government in conjunction with exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev, chairman of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For now, Azerbaijan's largest opposition bloc, Azadlig (Freedom), which unites the Musavat Party, Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, has also generally welcomed Aliyev's decision.During an October 25 election broadcast on state Az TV, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar stated that the decree "should be assessed positively," and urged the opposition media not to present the president's decision as a "retreat" or "defeat." Gambar also called on Aliyev to use the opportunity to start a dialogue with the opposition to resolve outstanding differences.
In an October 25 statement on ANS TV, Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Karimli congratulated "every citizen fighting for a free election" on the presidential decree. "[W]e do not think this was your defeat. This is our land, our country. If we manage to reach agreement as soon as possible that human laws, not those of jungles, should rule this country, we all will win." However, Democratic Party First Deputy Chairman Sardar Jalaloglu expressed doubts about the implementation of the decree. "The presidential decree from May 11, 2005 [on conducting transparent elections] was also positively evaluated by the international community.It has not been implemented properly in practice," he said. The director of the non-governmental organization Society for Civilian Solidarity, Eldar Ismailov, voiced concern that the CEC will not be able to provide all the election stations with ink and special ultra-violet lamps by election day. "They have not bought them yet. How will they deliver this to election commissions located in the mountains one week ahead of voting?" Ismailov asked. "Definitely, there will be technical problems. Members of election commissions are not aware how to use this stuff and who will observe whether they use it correctly," he said.
Norwegian Ambassador Steinar Gill is also concerned about the lack of time for implementing the decree's provisions. "Use of indelible ink demands relevant technical equipments, special torches and other devices. All of them should be ordered, obtained and distributed, but little time is left," Gill told Trend news agency.Implementation of the president's instructions on foreign-funded NGOs may require further time; parliament must first amend the existing law. But the CEC's Gasimova maintained that no extraordinary delays are expected."
If parliament adopts the amendment to the law about NGOs, we will try to do everything in order that NGOs will be able to monitor the elections," Gasimova said. "In case of need, the CEC is able to prolong the term of registration of observers from local NGOs." One thousand five hundred observers are planning to take part in election monitoring - a figure President Aliyev termed "unprecedented." The OSCE and the Council of Europe will send the biggest groups of observers to Azerbaijan. Despite the Aliyev decree, the international community's general concern remains about the fairness and transparency of the election process. In an October 13 statement, the pre-election mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe took the government to task for failing to reform election commissions so that representation was more equally held between opposition representatives and government or pro-government representatives. "I cannot say that everything is perfect," said PACE co-rapporteur Andreas Gross in an interview with the BBC about Aliyev's decree. "But recent steps have been taken in the right direction."