" Azerbaijan’s Election Code Not Ideal, but may Enable Free and Just Elections" – Venice Commission

"  Azerbaijan’s Election Code Not Ideal, but may Enable Free and Just Elections" – Venice Commission

France, Strasburg, 26 June / Trend corr A. Maharramli/ Exclusive interview of Secretary of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe Mr. Gianni Buquicchio to Trend :

Question: How does the Venice Commission assess the changes made in the Election Code of Azerbaijan?

Answer: Presshavepaid enough attention to the issue. Venice Commission's position was clear, but we were not familiar with the final draft passed at the Azerbaijani Parliament. The final draft was sent to us several weeks ago and now we are considering this. Many suggestions of the Venice Commission were taken into account and that is a positive factor. At the same time, I must say several issues to which Venice Commission used to pay great attention, including composition of election committees, have been retained. I have stated for several times that there is no magic formula to create a good election committee. I used to say that the political culture of the Azerbaijani people would be developing for a long period. Presently, like in many countries, Azerbaijan may face agenda issue to form its election committees of professional officials, i.e., to avoid forming the committees of political parties by appointment. It is difficult to create an ideal election committee. There must be trust of citizens, voters and political parties to election committees. It would be good to find another formula to create elections committees which could be trusted by the Azerbaijani people. But that did not happen. As I said, other suggestions and views were included in the Election Code. So, I can say though Election Code is still incomplete, anyway given current situation, it can enable free and just elections. That is my personal view. Now, authorities, citizens and political parties in Azerbaijan must do so that the presidential elections to be held in October could comply with international standards. I want to see and hear the elections in Azerbaijan have been held well. All sides involved in election process - electors, members of elections committees, watchdogs, political parties and the authorities must do their utmost to make the elections free, democratic and just.

Question: Do the changes guarantee free and transparent elections?

Answer: It is veryimportant to apply the law. Election Code must be used with good intentions. The Election Code of Azerbaijan is complicated. That is my other critics in this connection. The Code is vast. A long and complicated Law complicates its application. Once, it will be the time to develop an election law which will not be long and complicated and will not bore readers. Long and complicated election law creates difficulties to lawyers, judges and members of election committees. So, in accordance with interests of correct elections, the items of election law must be readable to prevent problems during its application.

The law must be readable, its items must be correct and must be applied the way conforming with electors' interests. I will cite one example: there is a rule on exit-poll in the passed Election Code - a structure or a political party implementing exit-poll must inform the Central Election Committee (CEC). That is normal. Informing CEC of exit-poll is a positive point, because the Committee must be aware of who is doing what. However, it would be incorrect to interpret this as compulsory permission from CEC to hold an exit-poll. That is not stipulated in the Law. The Law must be commented in favour of democratic elections.

Question: There is contradictory news on inclusions of the Venice Commission proposals in the law on changes to the Elections Code. Were these proposals included in the Elections Code?

Answer: With this respect I can note finger inking. Though it has been experienced earlier, this time this issue was openly indicated in the law. A proposal on establishment of expert groups intended to help the Elections Commissions in the check-up of appeals by candidates has been accepted. This is the positive milestone. The electors' list includes not only name, but also address of the elector. This is the additional mean to identify a person. Similar surnames exist in some countries. The law stipulates issue of identifying cards for observers. It will enable to know who participates in the elections bureau. There is an issue of cancellation of the candidates' registration. It requires a decision of the court. This is also a positive milestone. However, it is possible on condition when it is applied in correct way and after the appraisal of the situation the court will take a decision on cancellation of candidature in an independent order. An expert group, in its turn, should check up the exiting appeals, carrying its work in a correct way. There is progress. This quality of this Code will be defined during its application. I hope this time Azerbaijan will say to other member of the European family it is possible to hold free and democratic elections.

Question: Which suggestions did not Azerbaijan take into account?

Answer: The most important issue was that about election committees. We recommended this many times. For several years we have been trying to find amongst the participants of election process [electors and political parties] a formula of creation of trustful election committees. The formula may be balanced between the authorities and opposition or may be in some other format. The main thing for election committees is to gain trust. On 14-15 July, I will be visiting Azerbaijan to participate in an international conference which will be dedicated to the 10th anniversary of country's Constitutional Court. I hope to meet with responsible persons of the state bodies of Azerbaijan, as well as with chairman of the CEC Mazahir Pаnahov. I will state the importance of election committees to him. Even if composition of election committees will not be balanced, Committee may take an independent and impartial position to contribute to successful election process. Should the elections be unsuccessful, which I hope will not take place, it will be crucial to take serious measures. The officials violating laws during election process must be severely punished.

Question: Was the cut in the term of pre-elections campaign, registration of candidatures on the basis of money deposit coordinated with the Venice Commission and what is estimation of these changes?

Answer: We do not fully agree with them. We cannot say that they do not meet the standards. The state should continue fulfilling its functions. There is no need to hold long elections campaign, impeding the work of the state, government and parliament. At the same time during the elections campaign the political parties should be provided opportunities to get familiar with program and to introduce themselves so that to gain electorate through their ideas. 28 days is equal to a month. Indeed, this period is enough to hold elections campaign. As to the case of Azerbaijan, unless the candidates possess equal access to public and private media, it will naturally grant a group of parties more favorable terms than others. Thus, 28 days are not enough for those who do not have free access to media. The elections process lasts 75 days. It is not bad. 125 days would seem more. At the same time, do 75 days are enough to collect 40,000 signatures? We take into consideration all possible tough procedures. Candidates might face difficulties in collection of signatures. Placing deposit for registration is not so widely spread experience in other world countries. However, its existence is also a good milestone. Notwithstanding, collection of 40,000 signatures could portray more difficulties rather placing deposit. Some issues should not be criticized because of not being a standard form. Therefore, the expected result can be achieved though the application of the law. All rules in the Elections Code should be applied not in favor of candidates, but also for holding free, transparent, correct elections process. As to cut in term, in some countries this period is really very short. However, there are other types of provisions. For instance, free access to media. The term of election commissions in France and Italy is short. Obviously, there is elections campaign and the potential candidates can introduce them in media. As there is ban for access to public and private television channels in Azerbaijan, some candidates are as though fined. I hope this ban will be lifted once, whist currently it is in force.

Question: May the supplements and changes be re-considered?

Answer: Azerbaijan's Parliament is sovereign. We cannot make it to do that, we can merely recommend. We have worked in that field together with Azerbaijani experts. It was the Parliament to decide whether to admit, reject or change several recommendations. That is the full right of the Parliament. We noted this whilst considering the Code passed. However, there will be several disturbing points in the comment which we will make, such as reduction of election campaign period, restriction of speeches in mass. I repeat, should the laws be applied correctly, it will be possible to hold just elections in current conditions.

Question: How does the Venice Commission assess the changes which have been made in the Law on Freedom of Assembly?

Answer: All I have said about the Election Code may be attributed to the Law on Freedom of Assembly, but with slight additions. The Law does correspond with international standards. That is a very good law, but we will observe how it will be applied. A country neighbouring on Azerbaijan has developed jointly with the Venice Commission a Law on Freedom of Assembly. But, unfortunately, problems occurred with its application. And PACE is very concerned about that.

Question: Which of your recommendations on the Law were rejected?

Answer: Generally, all important points were taken into consideration. Our comment on the Law is positive. It is normal to get permission to hold a demonstration. It is like that in all countries, since governmental bodies must be aware of demonstrations to take some measures. On the other hand, people do not have time to get permission for a spontaneous rally of a small group. All that has been stipulated in the Law. Now, the issue is its right application. The Law is very important on the threshold of elections.

Question: Can the changes made in the Law eliminate the restrictions on the free assembly right in Azerbaijan?

Answer: The law enables elimination of a range of obstacles. We jointly worked over the Law. One of the problems was ban on demonstrations in front of governmental buildings. What is a state body? Is a post office also a governmental building? There is a plenty of such buildings. So, demonstrations must be held in villages. The changes solved the problem.

Question: What about the conference to take place in Baku in July?

Answer: That will be an international conference dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Constitutional Court of Azerbaijan. Ten years ago I participated in establishment of the Court, since the Venice Commission had been working over the Law envisaging establishment of the Constitutional Court. I am very satisfied with this initiative of the Constitutional Court. Other countries' responsible persons, Constitutional Court representatives have been invited to the conference. I hope to meet with Azerbaijan's officials during the visit. I have not yet draw up my visit program. I will be glad to meet with any official wanting to contact with me.

The correspondent can be contacted at [email protected]

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