Lack of genuine political alternatives in a restricted environment: International observers on Azerbaijan’s presidential election

The presidential elections in Azerbaijan lacked genuine pluralism and critical voices were continuously stifled, international observers said in a statement  today.

“Longstanding restrictions on freedoms of association and expression were reinforced by recent legal amendments and resulted in legislation not in line with international democratic standards,” they said.

The joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) concluded that while the election code is detailed and regulates all aspects of the electoral process, recent amendments left previous ODIHR recommendations unaddressed.

“The early presidential election was held in a restrictive environment, and while it was efficiently prepared, critical voices and political alternatives were largely absent. Regrettably, previous recommendations to bring the legal framework closer in line with international standards for democratic elections have remained unaddressed, and numerous restrictions in law and practice continue to exist,” said Artur Gerasymov, Special Co-ordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observers.

“The campaign remained low key throughout, lacked any meaningful public engagement and was not competitive. While six other candidates participated in the campaign, none of them convincingly challenged the incumbent president’s policies in their campaigns, leaving voters without any genuine alternative. Civil society and opposition representatives noted that the legal framework and its implementation makes it difficult to enjoy their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to hold public gatherings, both in the run-up to the election and outside the campaign period,” the observers said in the statement.

“In observing this election, I have noticed the strong absence of an engaged and informative public campaign between political alternatives, while the media environment remained extremely constrained, leaving voters without the possibility to meaningfully inform themselves about the options on voting day,” said Daniela De Ridder, Head of the OSCE PA delegation. “Women remain vastly under-represented in political life, although they shoulder the majority of the organizational work on election day. This demonstrates the need to introduce laws that guarantee equal participation in politics.”

“Highly restrictive media legislation as well as recent arrests of critical journalists have hindered the media from operating freely and led to widespread self-censorship, limiting the scope for independent journalism and critical debate. Minimal coverage of the candidates and campaign reduced the opportunity for voters to learn about the contestants and their programmes in order to make an informed choice on election day,” the observers stated.

“In this important election for the country, none of the candidates challenged the incumbent convincingly, and some opposition parties did not take part at all, claiming a lack of adequate democratic conditions,” said Eoghan Murphy, who headed ODIHR’s election observation mission. “While preparations for the election were efficient and professional, including the training of precinct commissioners, on election day important safeguards were often disregarded and we observed substantial procedural errors throughout the day.”

The international election observation mission to the early presidential election in Azerbaijan totaled 335 observers from 42 countries, comprising 256 ODIHR-deployed experts and long-term and short-term observers, and 79 from the OSCE PA.

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