On November 6 Azerbaijanis went to the polls to elect 125 new members of the National Parliament. According to the final numbers from the Central Election Commission (CEC), turnout was close to 47% of all registered voters, a number generally confirmed by local and international observers. Some local analysts worry that such a low turnout might indicate low public trust in the electoral process.
According to the preliminary results, the ruling Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party secured 63 of 125 seats, which clearly gives it a majority in the new parliament. The opposition Azadliq bloc has so far won only seven seats, and a number of “soft opposition” parties took close to 10 seats altogether. Independent candidates received 41 seats, although doubts remain about the true political affiliation of these independent candidates, most of whom are closely linked with the authorities.
Some observers noted that although this time the voting process did not include widespread, blatant fraud techniques such as ballot staffing, carousel voting, and multiple voting, there were other violations that might have affected the results, such as instructing or pressuring voters (especially in rural areas, army units, and prisons), changing protocols at the district-commission level, voter list irregularities and omissions, intimidation, pressure, and even expulsion of observers, agitation in favor of pro-government candidates, and polling station commission members refusing to issue copies of the final protocols. The decision to ink the fingers of individuals after they cast their ballot, although helpful in preventing carousel voting, was in many instances monopolized by YAP members on the election commissions. Opposition parties claim that in rural areas there was also ballot stuffing, vote buying, and multiple voting.
Both international observers and local opposition parties have said that the elections fell short of international standards. The head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL) declared at the post-election press conference, “The elections did not meet a number of OSCE and Council of Europe standards.” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Adam Ereli, although noting some progress in the conduct of the elections, shared the OSCE evaluation. The opposition Azadliq block refuses to recognize the elections results and has called for a national demonstration today (November 9) at Baku’s Galaba Square (Yeni Musavat, November 7). The authorities have permitted the rally.
Interestingly enough, the exit poll funded by the U.S. government and conducted by PA Consulting Group in 65 out of 125 election districts revealed that 83% of the official results from the CEC match the exit poll results. Only 12 out of 65 exit-polled districts have a different winner than the one announced by the CEC (www.usaidazexitpoll.com).
Two other exit polls, conducted by an American company, Mitofski International, and an Estonian company, Saar, have not issued their results yet, although there is little confidence among the opposition parties that these two exit polls are unbiased.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev told media representatives on Monday November 7 that he considered the elections to be “normal and democratic” and said that the election districts that had problems “would be investigated by the CEC and the Prosecutor’s Office” (AZTV). Indeed, on November 8 the Central Election Commission cancelled the results in two election districts (42 Sumgait and 9 Binagadi). In one other election district (31 Surakhani, where Popular Front party chairman Ali Kerimli is running as a candidate), 10 polling stations were invalidated, which automatically made the opposition leader the frontrunner. CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov said on November 8 that two more election districts (8 Binagadi and 29 Sabail) were under investigation.
Local experts believe that these efforts are aimed at increasing public confidence with the electoral system, improving the image of President Aliyev, and legitimizing the election outcome in the eyes of the international community. Indeed, most of the international observer delegations have requested an investigation of alleged election fraud and punishment of those who violated election laws. Yet, some analysts also believe that the latest cancellations of the election results in some districts are part of a bargaining process going on between the opposition and the ruling party.
Much will depend on the nature and outcome of the opposition rallies. Should they be peaceful, a Ukrainian-style Orange-Revolution scenario will be unlikely. The distant Galaba Square does not pose a direct threat to the governmental buildings in downtown Baku. At the same time, the fact that the opposition has let three days pass before staging a demonstration led to a loss of momentum on their part. Yet, should more people join the demonstrations, tensions escalate, and the international community support the opposition demands for revotingelections, the Aliyev administration would face severe challenges.