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

Azerbaijan's Apathetic Election

Voters are underwhelmed by the latest test of democracy in their country.

Azerbaijan’s municipal elections, which some had expected to be the first political test for President Ilham Aliev, turned out to be an exceptionally quiet event. Turnout was low, three opposition parties boycotted the poll, and critics said the authorities merely ended up “appointing” their own candidates to municipal posts.

“I still don’t know where my local authority is and who heads it,” said 24-year-old graduate student Javid Guliev. “That’s why I didn’t vote. In the end these people just get appointed from above. I really don’t understand who needs these municipal authorities if no one can see what work they do.”

Mazahir Panakhov, head of Azerbaijan’s central election commission, recorded that just 46 per cent of voters cast their ballots in the December 17 poll. Just half an hour before that, the commission’s press office had released figures putting turnout at 38.3 per cent. In the presidential elections of October last year, won by Ilham Aliev, turnout was 71.2 per cent.

Those voters who did show up at the polls said they were struck by the unaccustomed absence of campaigners trying to win their vote.

Chyrag Husseinov, a refugee from the Kelbajar region, said that in last year’s presidential election a bus had come to the sanatorium where he lived outside Baku to take voters to polling stations. But this time, no one bothered to persuade him to vote.

Political analyst Rasim Musabekov explained the sense of apathy by pointing out that Azerbaijan’s local authorities still controlled only around one per cent of the state budget and had very little power. When Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, CoE, in 1999, it promised to upgrade the powers of local government, he said, “but that did not happen and the population has not sensed any activity from the local bodies of power.”

In 1999, at the prompting of the CoE, 2,732 municipal authorities were formed across Azerbaijan, but they have no control over education, healthcare or transport as such bodies do in other countries. Meanwhile, the most powerful local official in the country, the mayor of Baku, is appointed by the president.

Officially, 31 parties took part in the local elections, but in practice more than half the candidates were from the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party.

The three biggest opposition parties, Musavat, the Democratic Party and the Popular Front, boycotted the election, condemning them in advance as undemocratic.

International diplomats criticised their stance, with United States ambassador Reno Harnish saying he was “astonished” at the boycott. “I asked them how they consider it possible to achieve the growth of democracy if they do not go and talk to the voters,” Harnish told journalists on December 15.

President Ilham Aliev said the boycott was a sign of the opposition’s weakness.

“I think every political force should take part in every election,” the president told journalists. “If you consider that there is no minimum turnout requirement in Azerbaijan, then there is no point in boycotting elections.”

Azerbaijan’s fourth main opposition party, the National Independence Party, did take part in the polls but its leader Etibar Mamedov pronounced himself disappointed afterwards, saying that “these weren’t proper elections, everyone was just appointed”.

In the village of Nardaran on the Apsheron peninsular outside Baku, which experienced rioting and then a wave of arrests in 2002, the elections did not take place at all because there were not enough candidates to fill the posts.

“We don’t need any local authority,” said one villager in Nardaran who asked to remain anonymous. “We’ve even heard that the price for being elected to the village council fluctuates between three and ten thousand US dollars, depending on how profitable a particular village in Apsheron is. Because municipal land is more expensive here in Novkhany than in Mehdiabad, a job in our local authority costs more. But we are not for sale.”

The non-governmental organisation For Free and Fair Elections declared the polls were neither free nor fair, noting many cases where the results had been rigged in favour of the relatives of officials. The organisation said election observers had been removed from many polling stations by policemen.

Ambassador Harnish, who was among the 128 foreign observers at the polls, strongly criticised vote-rigging on polling day itself. He spoke to journalists at polling station no. 23 in Baku’s Narimanov-Nasimi district, where an international observer said he had seen the local head of the electoral commission with a pile of ballot papers in his office, about to falsify the results. The ambassador said he would raise his concerns with the central electoral commission.

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s project coordinator in Azerbaijan. Rufat Abbasov, who works for Reuters in Baku, contributed to the article.

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