Apathy NOT fraud undermines Azerbaijan’s Parliamentary Election
Controversy surrounds Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, the international media’s focus on the main opposition’s claims of “massive fraud” distract attention from the deeper crisis of legitimacy affecting all Azeri political parties. Barely 40% of registered voters took part in Sunday’s polls. Ordinary Azeris seem cynical about all politicians and their mass abstention sent the message “a plague on all your houses.”
Past performance by a governing elite universally accused of corruption in this potentially oil-rich society and by an opposition riven by personal rivalries barely disguised by the formation of several “united” fronts has led many Azeris to regard politics and politicians with open disdain.
This is a pity because it suggests an unhealthy outlook for Azerbaijan’s chances of establishing democracy, but also because the actual conduct of the elections and the counts in polling stations visited by this Group’s observers was of a high standard. Maybe if Azris had had more confidence in the candidates, many more of them would have voted, At the local level in their neighbourhood polling stations, the standard of conduct of the voting and counting should have given them reason to trust the ballot if they had really wanted to elect a candidate. (Final results are not yet available and so caution about the collation of results is naturally still in order.)
Election Day Observations
Although refused accreditation as international observers by the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan (CEC), three representatives of this Group were able to visit 11 different polling stations in the capital, Baku, the city of Sumgait and the region between them. The local election officials and observers representing candidates were cooperative in every place and their relaxed attitude to foreigners asking questions about the conduct of the vote reflected the calm and orderly fashion in which voting took place in each polling station visited.
Uniformed police were not in evidence in polling stations and only in one place (Sumgait 42/10) did opposition observers claim that anyone had intimidated voters in the polling station. They said that the local chairman of the housing executive had tried to tell people how to vote. Other observers and members of the commission disputed this. Voters at this station seemed quite happy to express their opinions outside the polling room and to make anti-government remarks. Their main complaint – one heard elsewhere – was that Azerbaijan’s oil wealth had not benefited them. Pensions and minimum wages of $30 a month were cited as examples of the gulf between the haves at oil companies like SOCAR and BP and the rest of the population.
Ordinary people did not seem intimidated and certainly were not being herded to vote. Throughout polling day in Baku and Sumgait the Group’s observers registered a very low turnout. Although some election officials blamed “poor weather” for keeping voters away from the polls, many ordinary people could be seen in the streets and shops of both cities. Apathy may be one explanation of the low turnout but cynicism was commonly expressed about all politicians.
Azeris may routinely accuse government officials and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party’s members of corruption, but opposition politicians seemed to be held in hardly higher esteem. One comment summed up the attitude: “The government is corrupt, and the opposition would be if they could get into power.”
Compared with Azerbaijan’s first post-Communist and post-coup elections in 1993 and 1995, the voter registration and secrecy of the ballot were vastly improved. Although a small number of complaints were registered about names missing from the voters’ lists, these were statistically insignificant compared with elections in the 1990s. Voters were required to sign the list (something not done in Britain’s lax polling stations) and the observers saw none of the suspiciously similar signatures which disfigured the registers in 1993 and 1995.
Well-curtained booths were available in every polling station and only one instance of public voting was witnessed – a man struggling with a 14 candidate-long ballot paper. Unlike a decade ago, the observers witnessed only rare cases of more than one person in a booth and they were obviously family members – husband and wife, or mother and daughter. No-one presented multiple voter-IDs as in the past.
The observers watched the count in neighbouring polling stations in Baku 21 (Nos. 6 & 7). Azadlig activists had recommended this district as a potential, even likely place for fraud since one of the most prominent Popular Front members, Fouad Mustafayov, was a candidate in that constituency. Although the Azadlig observer complained that four voters had been left off the register and that an off-duty policeman had loudly proclaimed his intention to vote for a pro-governmental candidate, he accepted the narrow defeat of his candidate because the counts in 21/6 & 7 had been properly conducted. Ulvi Zahid Quliyev took 221 votes against Fouad Mustafayov’s 216 but this was out of almost 2,800 adults in the district, meaning that neither candidate approached 10% of general support.
Although the two election commissions were harshly precise in interpreting what was a valid voter rejecting several ballots where the voters’ intentions were clear, there was no sign that these invalidations were politically biased since pro-governmental candidates suffered rigid interpretations of the election rules as well as opposition ballots.
It is worth noting that not only was the opposition camp split between several “fronts” with added independent candidates splitting the vote, but the so-called government camp failed to put up only one candidate in the 125 seats. Several Yeni Azerbaycan members and government officials routinely competed against each other as well as Azadlig’s candidate and other oppositionists! It would be wrong to see Azeri politics as composed of monolithic blocs. But these undisciplined splitters inside the main political parties no doubt help to undermine potential voters' trust in politicians.
Three separate exit polls were organized by USAID, Mitkofsky International and the Estonian Saur organization. All three polls were so flawed in their conduct as to render their results statistically worthless.
Although they were outside all but one of the polling stations visited, the exit pollsters had learned none of the lessons on correct procedure which the Azeri CEC seems to have inculcated in the official election organizers. Everywhere the exit polls were filled in by voters in public! The fact that anyone – officials, pollsters, observers, public or police – could see how people voted in these exit polls rendered them methodologically absurd and their results statistically worthless.
The Group was surprised by the USAID’s exit poll finding that 46% of electors in Sumgait/41 cast ballots since in their experience only about 27% of people had voted in the polling stations visited there with less than three hours to the close of poll. In Baku, in three polling stations visited in the half hour up to the close of the poll, only one had reached 40% turnout and the other two hovered just over 30%!
However, the fact the pollsters’ boxes were emptied three times during polling day meant that their sponsors and anyone with access to the results could get a picture of how the voting was supposed to be going. Such information could have led to attempts by interested parties to influence the outcome of the poll while voting was still going on. For this reason alone, the exit polls – whoever sponsored them – were undesirable and potentially inflammatory.
Conclusion: ‘Against All’ trounces government and opposition
Since members of the BHHRG have observed elections in Azerbaijan since 1993, the Group is in a good position to judge the trend in the conduct of Azeri elections since then and in how international agencies like the OSCE and Western media have assessed them.
Oddly enough, when grotesque abuses took place, like a vote being cast in a foreign observer’s name in 1993 or individuals used handfuls of identity cards to vote multiple times in both 1993 and 1995, the OSCE and Council of Europe was complacent about the “new Kuwait’s” electoral flaws. However, as procedures have improved and glaring abuses disappeared, the tone of Western criticism has hardened. Once the international observers sided with the current authorities now they tend to back tomorrow’s rulers in the current opposition but the objectivity of their approach is dubious.
Meanwhile ordinary Azeris seem increasingly alienated from the political process. Before Azerbaijan adopted the first past the post system for its parliamentary elections, voters had the option of rejecting all candidates by voting “against all.” Since the vast majority of electors in Azerbaijan stayed away from the polls on 6th November, it seems clear that no political grouping can claim much popular legitimacy from the results.
Yeni Azerbaycan candidates may rejoice at their success in winning so many seats in the new parliament but their share of the total possible electorate was lamentably low.
Members of the opposition coalition Azadlig have cried foul, but even if their charges prove well-founded - and our observers did not see any of the serious abuses alleged - it has to be admitted that Azeri voters did not pour into polling stations to support their candidates. Other opposition groups like New Policy and the Liberal Democrats also failed to attract large numbers of voters to the polls.
If the 2005 Azeri Parliamentary elections are evidence of a crisis of legitimacy, then the low-turn out indicates that all political forces are held in low esteem by Azeri citizens. Political competition in Azerbaijan was between minorities of varying unpopularity.
Cynicism and apathy seems to have kept most Azeri adults away from the polls. The question now is whether a stable political system can be built on that basis. The opposition has threatened protests. As this Group has observed elsewhere in the region, relatively small numbers of determined men can topple governments. It is what is routinely called “People Power”. It remains to be seen whether the government of President Ilham Aliev needs to fear an opposition that drew only a minority of voters to the polls. However, the experience of neighbouring Georgia after the parliamentary elections there in 2003 was that a determined if small hard line group could topple a president after Western observers colluded in crying foul, before going on to endorse a new regime “elected” by 96% of “voters.” Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections could yet lead to that kind of result – whatever the voters really wanted - if street protests in the next few days rather than polls determine who holds power in Baku as they did in Tbilisi in 2003.