Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Election Problems Greatest Outside Baku
Bedlam reigned in the school classroom used as a polling station in the village of Nardaran, as voters unable to find their names on the electoral roll shouted out their demands for the errors to be corrected.
Arriving in Nardaran – about 30 kilometres north of the Azerbaijani capital – at around noon on election day, IWPR contributors were immediately struck by the contrast between the turbulence here and the sense of order that characterised the voting in Baku.
“There are a lot of names missing from the voting lists,” Raj Muradov, an observer from the Azadlig opposition election bloc, told IWPR. “One example from the protocols we are writing up is [a case where] only two out of 22 members of one family were listed on the rolls.”
Vugar Atakishizade, who at 19 was a first-time voter, was among those unable to cast his ballot because officials told him they could not locate him on the list. “Our names were omitted on purpose,” he claimed, “and now our votes will quietly be transferred to the government candidate.”
“What can I do now?” he asked. “If anyone now begins protesting, I will join them.”
A mass of people jammed the room as officials carefully checked each voter’s identity. But because of the crowd, election staff failed to check whether anyone had already voted by shining an ultraviolet light to show up the invisible ink used to mark the fingers of those who cast a ballot.
The chaos was in part caused by the fact that just days before the elections, Azerbaijan’s constitutional court had overturned a ruling that would have disqualified Haji-Agha Nuri from standing as a candidate. As head of Azerbaijan’s Islamic Party and a Nardaran man himself, Nuri stood to do well in an area regarded as the most staunchly Muslim in the country.
Although Nuri appears to have done well in Nardaran itself, early results suggest he did not win in this constituency, which also includes the villages of Mashtaga and Bilgah.
Nuri saw the uproar as positive insofar as it showed that voters thought the election really mattered.
“If this had been five years ago, there wouldn’t have been this hullabaloo. There weren’t any expectations then,” he said. “But now all this oil money has appeared in the country and everything has changed. It’s time to keep an eye on the government.”
According to Nuri, Nardaran’s inhabitants have become much more politically active than ever before, “This is the first time in the history of Nardaran that all the women in the village have come out to vote.”
Voters themselves noted their heightened sense of political engagement.
“People are beginning to believe - to sense - that their vote counts for something,” said local resident Mehrali Hadiev. “This is displayed both by those who’re voting for the government and those voting for the opposition.”
In the key constituencies where the major opposition leaders were running – Rasul Guliyev, leader-in-exile of the Democratic Party, Ali Kerimli of the Popular Front and Isa Gambar of Musavat – the day started quietly, but as evening approached tensions grew as reports of violations came in.
At the polling station where Gambar was running, in Baku’s Narimanov district, an IWPR contributor stood and watched as supporters of the pro-government candidate Adil Aliev handed out 50,000 manats (roughly 10 US dollars) to voters entering the building.
This contributor also reported that buses had been arranged to bring large numbers of pro-government voters to the polls.
However, IWPR contributors covering the elections said that by and large, the voting went smoothly in the capital, and in many ways was conducted better than in previous contests.
But the picture changed for the worse as one moved further away from Baku. In Surakhani, on the outskirts of the city, officials checked only sporadically for the indelible – and invisible - ink. President Ilham Aliev had ordered the introduction of ink-marking – a common way of preventing repeat voting elsewhere in the world – as part of a package of measures he said would help ensure fair elections.
Opposition supporters claimed to have witnessed cases of “carousel voting”, where one person or a whole group votes a number of times in different voting stations.
Ilgar Abbasov, an election monitor from the opposition, told IWPR that he personally tried to block one such attempt in Nardaran.
“I stopped a group of people who were trying to vote for the third time,” he said. “They began arguing and then left. But a little while later, I met them again at another polling station.”
Abbasov believes the chaos in Nardaran and other areas was deliberately manufactured as a way of allowing large numbers of people to vote without having their fingers checked.
For instance, he said, “In the village of Mashtaga, I saw a group of athletic-looking men standing outside a polling station creating a scene. And right at that moment, a large group of people entered the polling station and no one checked their fingers.”
Local election officials insisted that there were no serious procedural violations during the ballot.
“Yes, there were a few problems with the lists, and we will investigate that, but it did not affect the general conduct of the elections,” said Rashad Jabbarov, head of the Nardaran district electoral commission.
This view contrasted with reports from various Azerbaijani news agencies, which cited election staff at some constituencies as having witnessed mass violations.
At national level, five out of the 12 members of the Central Election Commission have reportedly demanded that the results in 20 out of the country’s 125 constituencies (one per parliamentary seat) be discounted.
However, one important point that the army of international election observers on the ground may have missed is that in some places, at least, the result appears to have been fixed long before election day, so there would not have been any need for rigging on the day.
As Kamal Ibrahimli, an opposition monitor in Bilgah, told IWPR, “This time it looks like the observers got to see the most important things like opening the ballot-boxes and counting the papers. But one can see already that this was of little consequence – they [pro-government campaigners] did a lot of work on the public ahead of the election.”
Ibrahimli alleged that Bilgah’s local government chief, Galib Salahzade, was personally behind the campaign to pressure local voters.
“He warned everyone in advance whom they should vote for,” said Ibrahimli. “Not a lot of people would go against that.”
An IWPR contributor watched as Salahzade launched an angry tirade of abuse at journalist Polad Tairov, who was trying to interview an election monitor for Azad Soz, an opposition-linked newspaper.
“What are you asking threating questions for?” said Salahzade, who then turned to IWPR’s reporter and said by way of explanation, “They’re doing it to blackmail people.”
Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's country director in Azerbaijan. Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR's regional director based in Tbilisi.
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