European Parliament goes soft on flawed Azerbaijan election
By Andrew Gardner and Toby Vogel - Today, 06:05 CET
Section: Front page
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OSCE found significant problems with the election but Parliament observers concluded that the election was 'free, fair and transparent'.
The European Parliament's credibility as a guardian of democracy has been damaged by a report on Azerbaijan's presidential election that is markedly kinder than the verdict of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The OSCE found significant problems with every stage of the campaign, including intimidation of candidates and voters, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and intimidation of journalists. It assessed 58% of observed polling stations as bad or very bad. The election on 9 October returned Ilham Aliev as president with 85% of the vote. He has been president since 2003, when he took over from his father Heidar Aliev, who had been president for the previous ten years. The OSCE said that Azerbaijan had failed to heed most of its earlier recommendations.
An official election observation mission by the European Parliament, however, concluded that the election was “free, fair and transparent” and was marked by “more open electoral debate”. The team of seven MEPs, led by Pino Arlacchi of the Italian centre-left, limited its criticism almost entirely to saying that “improvements are still desirable with regards to the electoral framework”.
The other six members of the delegation were: Filip Kacmarek (Poland, EPP), Joachim Zeller (Germany, EPP), Evgeni Kirilov (Bulgaria, S&D), Norica Nicolai (Romania, ALDE), Milan Cabrnoch (Czech Republic, European Conservatives and Reformists) and Fiorello Provera (Italy, Europe of Freedom and Democracy).
The electoral observation mission had been controversial from the outset, with some political groups voicing fears that it might end up lending support to Aliev.
The European External Action Service told European Voice that it relied in its judgments on the conclusions of the OSCE.
Problems with the credibility of the Parliament have been further compounded by the activities of MEPs who were not in the official observation team, but went to observe the election nonetheless.
European Voice has identified nine MEPs who went to Baku last week, missing all or parts of the plenary session in Strasbourg.
Six of them assessed the election very favourably in their own name, in most cases to Azeri state-owned media.
Kriistina Ojuland, an Estonian liberal who was expelled from her national party earlier this summer for vote-rigging, was quoted as saying that the election was “free, fair and transparent”.
Three other liberal MEPs from the ALDE group – Ivo Vajgl (Slovenia), Alexandra Thein (Germany) and Hannu Takkula (Finland) – were members of delegations that issued very positive assessments of the election.
Croatian socialist Oleg Valjalo also attended and commented favourably on the election to Azeri media.
There were four MEPs from small or peripheral parties – Nick Griffin, a far-right UK MEP, Jacek Wlosowicz of Poland and Slavi Binev of Bulgaria, both of whom belong to the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, and Jirí Maštálka, a far-left Czech.
Binev said he paid his own way and was observing on his own behalf.
Griffin told European Voice: “I was there with the independent Central European Election Monitoring team, organised by the Vienna-based European Centre for Geo-Political Studies.”
Thein said her mission, which also included Gabriele Stauner, an ex-MEP who is to re-join the Parliament next week, was funded by the Berlin-based Society for the Promotion of German-Azerbaijani Relations (GEFDAB). The organisation is registered as a private company, and a representative said its funding was an internal matter of no public interest.
Ojuland said that she was invited by the Azeri parliament, but refused to disclose how her trip was financed.
Vajgl and Takkula went as part of a group organised by the European Academy for Elections Observation (EAEO), a Belgian-registered non-profit organisation, which reported that the election had “consolidated democracy”. The EAEO president, Stef Goris, a former Liberal member of the Belgian parliament, said that the EAEO's delegation comprised “135 MPs and political experts from 24 European Union countries and Canada”. He refused to detail the delegation's members, citing confidentiality, but described GEFDAB as its “sponsor”. The trips organised by EAEO and GEFDAB paid for flights and accommodation.
Maštálka, Wlosowicz and Valjalo did not respond to European Voice questions as to who paid for their trips.
The ALDE group and centre-left Socialists and Democrats group said that the MEPs had not gone to Azerbaijan with their approval.
MEPs must explain trips to Azerbaijan
Today, 04:55 CET
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Some MEPs appear to have indulged in electoral tourism.
Crass stupidity or petty venality seem to be the only plausible explanations for a member of the European Parliament choosing to go to Baku as an unofficial observer of Azerbaijan's sham presidential election last week.
There might be some high-minded MEP who would pay his or her own way, obtain unfettered access and report back to the Parliament and/or voters in enlightening terms. But we have yet to discover this rare breed of MEP and we are still waiting to read his or her report. Instead, what we publish today is a list (probably incomplete) of MEPs who appear to have indulged in electoral tourism. For them, an election appears to be a pretext to take a flight to somewhere that they would not otherwise visit and to stay in a plush hotel at somebody else's expense.
It might be funny if the regime in Azerbaijan did not have such a poor record in respecting human rights and democracy. Yes, this is a country that is blessed with a wealthy abundance of oil, but that does not mean members of the European Parliament should collude in cheapening the value of elections.
Ivo Vajgl (Slovenia), Alexandra Thein (Germany) and Hannu Takkula (Finland), all from the liberal ALDE group, travelled at the expense of a German association, the Society for the Promotion of German-Azerbaijani Relations, which appears to be a thinly disguised front organisation for Azeri government interests.
Did these innocents genuinely believe that their quiescent presence at the elections would not be used in some way by President Ilham Aliev and his supporters? The milk-and-water report from their front organisation bears feeble testimony to the so-called independence of these MEPs.
Estonian liberal MEP Kristiina Ojuland was quoted in the Azeri media praising the government, but refuses to say who paid for her trip.
The official report from the official European Parliament delegation to the elections is embarrassing enough. But at least that delegation travelled in an official capacity at the European Union's expense. Those MEPs who went at the expense of others must explain themselves to their voters and do them the courtesy of clarifying how a trip to Azerbaijan was more important than attending the Parliament's plenary session.
The shambles over sham election observation comes, ironically enough, just seven months before the elections to the European Parliament. At those elections, Europe's cross-border political parties will be staking their claims to represent voters Europe-wide. Yet the number of MEPs disappearing off to Azerbaijan raises serious questions about the capacity of some of those political parties to speak for anyone. On this evidence, the ALDE group is an ill-disciplined, ill-managed rabble. The leadership cannot keep its own MEPs in order, so why should voters support so-called ALDE candidates for the presidency of the European Commission or any other job?
It is an axiom of democratic politics that an elected representative should have the freedom to go anywhere, see anything and say anything. We are not questioning that general principle. But that axiom stems from the presumption that in democratic politics voters will have the chance to deliver their verdict on how the elected have used such freedom. Those MEPs who went to Azerbaijan should be held to account by their parties and their voters. Those who cannot explain themselves do not merit re-election. Otherwise, European parliamentary democracy is little better than the Azeri version.
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