Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijani Leader Cruises to Victory

Dispute over turnout figures takes the shine off landslide victory.
Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev was comfortably re-elected for a second term on October 15 in a contest in which he faced no proper opposition. But no less important for him was the verdict that the election was pronounced by observers to be more democratic than previous polls in Azerbaijan.

According to the latest figures, Aliev won around 89 per cent of the vote, with his nearest rival, Igbal Agazade, receiving less than three per cent.

The official results did not differ sharply from four exit-polls conducted by local organisations. The independent ELS centre recorded that Aliev had secured 82.6 per cent of the vote and Agazade around five per cent.

Rauf Zeini, head of the National Forum of Non-governmental Organisations of Azerbaijan, said that the vote had been the most democratic in the recent history of the country.

International observers tended to agree. Sean Brennan, representing a non-governmental organisation in Northern Ireland, observed the vote in the town of Sumgait, “The election count went without any problems. All the figures tallied so there were no extra ballots in the box. Local election officials made sure we could observe all parts of the count. It was very impressive to see the democratic process take root and begin to blossom.”

Monitors from the observation team of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, said they had seen "considerable progress" but expressed concerns about turnout figures and media coverage as well as technical problems.

A group of IWPR journalists observed the election in three electoral districts and eight polling stations both in Baku and on the edge of the city. The consensus among the journalists was that the standard of the election was much higher than in previous polls and violations were mainly of a technical character that could not have altered the result.

For example, in District No. 32 in the village of Byulbyul, 29-year-old Diana Isayeva received two invitations to vote in two different polling stations. Having successfully voted once, she went, on the request of IWPR, to the second station to check if her name was on the electoral list. When she entered her hand was not checked by an ultra-violet lamp for invisible ink on her finger, as should have been done. Isayeva received a second ballot but immediately returned it, telling the chairman of the electoral commission that she had already voted once.

Twenty-seven-year-old Lyaman Seidova did not receive any invitation to vote at all. “But thank God, I was not planning to go and vote,” she said. “I have a lot of things to do more important than this show and it’s better that I used my day off and go out with the children.”

Given the fact that Azerbaijan’s main opposition parties were boycotting the poll, the main fear of the Azerbaijani authorities had been a low turnout. The central electoral commission put turnout at 77 per cent. IWPR observed very different turnout levels at different polling stations.

In front of School No. 86 in Baku, IWPR saw a crowd of voters, mostly refugees from the Lachin region, now under Armenian occupation. Around sixty people were trying to get into the building to cast their votes. By contrast, just 100 metres away, another entrance into the same school gave on to another polling station, but there were no voters there at all. The silence was broken only by patriotic songs blasting out of a music machine installed in the yard in front of the school.

The advisory council of local non-governmental organisations said they had evidence of pressure being put on voters to turn out and cast their ballots.

“In information which we received on our hotline we were told that different officials had given orders to students and government employees telling them it was compulsory to visit polling stations and had threatened punishment for those who did not go and vote,” said Arzu Abdullayeva, head of the council.

In a press release, the council said that there had been cases of voters being bussed from one polling station to another. It went on, “In Lenkoran people who did not want to vote were taken to polling stations by force. In Barda internally displaced people voted several times in different places on the orders of the government. And in Gabala the population was frightened by being told that cameras had been fixed in polling stations to register if people did not vote.”

OSCE monitors also said they had evidence of invented turnout figures and people being forced to vote. Despite a generally positive verdict, observers said the election was "characterised by a lack of robust competition and vibrant political discourse facilitated by the media, and thus did not reflect all principles of a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election".

Isa Gambar, head of the opposition Musavat party and the losing candidate in the previous election in 2003, led a boycott on this occasion. He called the election a farce.

“We did not want to be puppets in the hands of the authorities to create an impression of democracy,” he told IWPR. “In the previous parliamentary and presidential elections we were amassing votes and they just disappeared from the ballot boxes.

“We have been fighting this regime for many years and are determined to continue this fight to the end. But evidently we need to find new means of struggle.”

None of the six candidates who did run against Ilham Aliev were household names in Azerbaijan. Three of them have already congratulated Aliev on his re-election. The governing Yeni Azerbaijani party staged a celebratory concert with well-known singers in one of the central parks of Baku.

Ali Akhmedov, the general secretary of Yeni Azerbaijan, told IWPR journalists that the elections had been “historic and their significance will only grow over time”.

“Ilham Aliev will continue the successful policies which he has been conducting for the past five years,” said Akhmedov. “President Ilham Aliev’s current platform differs in one respect. He is determined to develop the non-oil sector of the Azerbaijani economy.”

Regarding the unresolved Nagorny Karabakh conflict with Armenia, he said that the basic policy would not change but there might be some corrections.

“After the August events in Georgia we understand that it is better not to hurry with the use of force,” said Akhmedov. “While there is a chance of a peaceful settlement, we need to continue negotiations. But the [military] option remains in case all other options of settling the conflict are exhausted and we do not achieve any real results.”

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan Editor. Samira Akhmedbeili works for IWPR in Baku.