Dave Bernheisel
Dave Bernheisel
and his crew piloted a 1980 Mainship 34-I (powerboat, slow, single diesel) named Going There (as opposed to all those folks who have "been there") around the Great American Loop in 2002-2003. To join them on their trip, CLICK HERE.

The Azerbaijan Presidential Election: A close-up look at a democratic opportunity lost


I was in Azerbaijan for the presidential election on October 15th. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored the election with an army of 500 observers; I was one of the forty Americans in this contingent. While this election may not be a priority item on most LCC readers radar screen, the process, outcome, and context are interesting and an important event in the region.

Many of the former Soviet republics, wishing inclusion in the European community, are moving toward democracy. To give an air of legitimacy to their elections, they invite OSCE in to monitor the process. Within OSCE, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, pronounced "Oh Dear") carries out this task.

Typically ODIHR sets up a small mission several months in advance to monitor the campaign and handle the logistics for the larger group (500 in my case) who are to be in-country no more than a week. After the election, OSCE gives an assessment of the process similar to an academic grade.

"Free and fair" is the objective, with lesser grades of "not up to international standards", "not free and fair" and " we don't recognize the results" possible, depending on the process.

The incumbent president was Heydar Aliyev, a political strongman and head of the former republic's KGB office during the Soviet era. However, in recent years Aliyev's health has been failing and his intent was to pass the baton to his son Ilham, a political unknown, with a reputation as an intellectual lightweight and an international playboy.

To raise his son's visibility, Heydar appointed him prime minister. Early in the campaign, son Ilham registered as a candidate, as did a wide variety of opposition members. Despite the fact that the father was reportedly in the USA for medical treatment (he hadn't been seen in months and was even rumored to be dead), he was also registered as a candidate.

As the elections neared, the field of candidates dwindled. Then, on the last day to withdraw, a statement came from Heydar Aliyev that he was withdrawing and throwing his support to his son. The effect was to help his son through some of the name recognition and reputation issues.

The slippery maneuver on switching Aliyevs was mild compared to many of the tactics used to promote the government party and thwart the opposition. An opposition party worker complained to me that when the government party held a rally in his town, they declared it a government holiday and any government employees that were not seen at the rally would be fired.

By contrast, when his party attempted to have a rally, "road repairs" blocked all access to the town, significantly reducing attendance. Throughout the campaign, OSCE reported widespread media bias and police intimidation -- all aimed at thwarting the opposition.

As a representative of OSCE, I had to be very careful of what I said, for fear of it being taken out of context and used by one party or another for political gain. My touchiest situation occurred in a polling station when I noticed a very elderly woman, and, in deference to her age, I greeted her.

She then broke into an impassioned speech in support of Ilham Aliyev complete with "God and Aliyev will lead Azerbaijan to its true greatness." When she finished, she and the crowd around her looked to me to say something profound.

Obviously, the only thing worse than agreeing would be to disagree with her. So I said that I thought it was wonderful that she felt free to support any candidate she liked, and that I was sure that she would want all citizens to feel equally free to support any candidate they liked.

old woman
© 2003 Martina Oppermann

I doubt that this was what she and the crowd around her wanted to hear but it did get me out of the situation with the skin still on my back.

Election day results were not surprising.

I didn't see the final count, but I think Ilham Aliyev won with about 80 percent of the vote. That is consistent with what I observed in various polling stations.

I didn't personally witness any flagrant violations (stuffing the ballot box, same person voting multiple times, etc. ), but some of my colleagues reported such violations.

I did sense a definite air of intimidation in some polling stations. This was not, however, consistent throughout all polling stations that I observed. From this I concluded that the government party assumed that they had a sufficient "fix" on this thing, by virtue of the campaign tactics, that they didn't have to issue central orders for more spurious tactics for election day.

If so, the violations on election day may have been the result of local officials taking steps to increase the count for the government candidate, thereby making themselves look better to the bosses above them.

OSCE was not happy with the whole process and the official assessment was that the elections were not up to international standards.

Our State Department concurred and went a little farther by saying that it was unfortunate that the government of Azerbaijan missed an opportunity to take a major step toward democracy by holding credible elections.

The Russians, on the other hand, reported that the elections were honest and went ahead in a positive way. Many of my colleagues felt that their observations warranted a harsher assessment than that given by OSCE and State.

I felt that, while there were serious problems, the OSCE and State assessments were realistic. As I see it, Ilham Aliyev could have won a free and fair election. By taking liberties with the process, he lost credibility both at home and abroad.

This lack of credibility will make it more difficult to govern and he will compensate by using strong-arm tactics, which will lead to an escalating use of force and further deterioration of the already weak democratic institutions.

Needless to say, the opposition was not pleased and protested the results. The protests turned nasty with a couple of deaths and a lot of property damage.

Although the protests lasted only a couple of hours, the square in front of my hotel (the center of the demonstrations) was still cordoned off when I left Baku two days later.

In addition to the pure election observation tasks, the trip gave me a chance to see a new and different part of the world.

Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, is the major port on the west side of the Caspian Sea and was an important stop on the Silk Road from China to Europe. The city is an interesting mix of buildings from its glory days of hundreds of years ago to the bleakness of the Soviet planning and structures that surround the core.

For me, more important than the architecture and structures are the people. Even though the contacts are brief and superficial, I had an opportunity to speak directly with the people and try to understand their view of the world. Equally important is that it gives these folks an opportunity to know an American as an individual.

Each of these little contacts that we can establish is a block in building a better world and defusing the desire on the part of others to participate in activities such as we saw on 9/11/2001.