Monday

18th Feb 2019

Opinion

MEPs' shameful support for the Azerbaijan election

  • Baku: geo-political interest in oil-rich Azerbaijan is high (Photo: Sonke Henning)

European election observers announced starkly different assessments of the 9 October presidential election in Azerbaijan.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) condemned the election, citing the lack of a level playing field, limitations on fundamental freedoms, intimidation of voters and candidates, a restrictive media environment and “significant problems ... throughout all stages of the election day processes.”

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At the same time, the European Parliament (EP) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace) praised the election and said they observed a "free, fair and transparent" process around election day.

So what accounts for such divergent views by organisations that typically observe in joint missions?

Like other autocrats in the region and beyond, Azerbaijan's President, Ilham Aliyev, seeks a veneer of international legitimacy and calls in pseudo election observers who assess the election positively, regardless of its integrity.

Such observers may be motivated by various interests, political or economic, or even, reportedly, by gifts of Azerbaijan’s famous caviar.

This phenomenon has unfortunately become a typical part of elections in the region, as well as globally. The trend of internationals overlooking a blatantly undemocratic election to cast legitimacy on the incumbent winner is only accentuated in an oil-rich state like Azerbaijan.

But the Pace and the EP are not fake election observer groups deployed to whitewash undemocratic elections.

They regularly send delegations of elected parliamentarians to observe elections and have committed themselves to do so in a credible manner.

Both are signatories of the UN Declaration of Principles for International Election Observers, a document signed by 45 international observer groups expressly to avoid such situations.

The declaration requires observer groups to conduct comprehensive observation, taking into account the entire election process and placing election day into this context.

Indeed, it was the long-term findings of the ODIHR that the EP and Pace disavowed by issuing a separate statement, contrary to established practice.

Such divergent statements from European observers allow autocrats like Aliyev to “cherry pick” the observer statement they prefer, promoting positive findings with their domestic public through docile media, while ignoring the conclusions of more credible observers.

The EP/Pace statement lends legitimacy to a blatantly fraudulent process and undermines the work of domestic human rights activists, journalists and citizen election observers who have criticised it, often at great personal risk.

These kinds of outcomes also threaten the credibility of international election observation as a whole, as it is unclear to domestic and international audiences what accounts for the starkly divergent views, which then seem politicised and arbitrary.

In fact, observer groups like the ODIHR go to lengths to ensure their findings are based on first-hand, objective, verifiable evidence, and the wider international observer community has engaged in the Declaration of Principles in an effort to ensure that international observers base their findings on a credible methodology.

The support of the EP and Pace for a clearly undemocratic election process is shameful, and is an affront to the stated values of those organisations.

Both the EP and the Pace trumpet their promotion of human rights and democratic principles, and the EP passed a resolution in June highlighting concern about the pre-election situation in Azerbaijan.

Voters should ask their elected representatives why they are spending public funds to be cheerleaders for sham elections.

The EP and the Pace should ask whether it makes sense to continue sending such observation missions, which discredit their organisations.

And signatories of the Declaration of Principles should question the EP and Pace on why they have strayed so far from the agreed guidelines, weakening confidence in international election observation as a mechanism for the promotion of genuinely democratic elections.

The writer is the Brussels representative of Electoral Reform International Services (Eris), a London-based NGO which supports democratic governance around the world.

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