Managed Democracy: Azerbaijan's Presidential Election

As the 2008 Presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches, I predict there will be a substantial amount of revisionism of what happened in the 2005 election. It's not hard to do -- so few people pay attention that it's easy for regime mouthpieces to say whatever they want without anyone challenging them -- and there's plenty to gain by persuading people who only hear what they want to hear that the election was quite democratic.

Azerbaijan's Ambassador to the U.S. wrote a letter to the NYT this week that provides good insight into the regime's talking points. He was responding to an excellent but sort of "duh" article a few weeks back by Chris Chivers called Seeking a Path in Democracy's Dead End.

"To clarify, President Ilham Aliyev issued two orders in 2005 calling on election officials to obey election laws and lifted a ban on public demonstrations. The government also fully supported the use of exit polls and the inking of voters’ fingers to prevent the practice of double-voting, both of which were historic firsts for the country.

Moreover, when the government learned of voting irregularities in 10 districts, it took the unprecedented step of annulling those ballots and holding new elections in those areas, as well as dismissing from their posts the officials responsible.

The road to democracy is a process, and Azerbaijan views it not as a “dead end” but as a doorway through which we step willingly."

I watched a lot of the "process" in 2005 and democratic wasn't the exactly the word that came to mind. I don't doubt Ilham Aliyev twice ordered officials to obey the law (a strange command, if you think about it, since it is their job), if by "obey the law" you mean "beating people in the street," "arresting some journalists" and "stealing a boatload of votes." My friend's BBC documentary "How To Start a Revolution," has some footage of some of the more compelling examples of what passes for "law obeying" during elections in Azerbaijan.

Bragging about participating in exit polls and finger inking is pretty disingenuous, since the government consented to the inking about two weeks before the election and hired its own exit pollster to dilute the impact of the non-government sponsored exit poll. It's impossible to administer an effective finger inking program (especially invisible ink) in such a short time and train precinct personnel in its usage, a point that I am certain was not lost on the regime. Accordingly, I saw people freely voting who had all five fingers inked on both hands. Both are very savvy moves, and indicative of little else but the government's desire to promote the perception of a democratic process and the willingness of the West to buy into the narrative.

The "annulling ballots" part is admirable, but only a small part of the story. In an effort to purge the 2005 election in Azerbaijan from my mind, I have blocked a lot of this out, but other people remember quite well. Thanks to Vugar Godjaev for refreshing my memory.

  • Zakatala district (ConEC #110): Arif Hajiyev of the Azadliq bloc won the election. President Aliyev dismissed governor of Zakatala District Vaqif Rahimov for alleged interference in the vote. The election results were annulled.
  • Sabirabad district: Panah Huseynov of Azadliq Bloc won the election and the President dismissed the ExCom (an Excom is a presidentially appointed governor).
  • Surakhani district: Ali Karimov of Azadliq bloc won this constituency. The President dismissed the ExCom and the election results were annulled.
  • A week after Election Day, the Prosecutors Office said four election officials were detained on suspicion of falsifying balloting results and abuse of office. These election officials were from Binagadi (ConEC #9) and Sumgait (ConEC #42) constituencies, where Azadlik Bloc’s Sardar Jalaloglu and Flora Karimova respectively won the elections

These are only the most cut-and-dried examples. There were multiple other constituencies where the USAID exit poll varied from official results, but within the margin of error of the poll, so it was hard to make an assessment. There were also plenty of protocols that showed monkey business. OSCE outlines this and other problems here.

The Aliyev regime is going to be making a lot of effort this year to demonstrate to the US and European partners that Azerbaijan is "democratic and lawful." We'll be keeping a watch out here. We specialize in lost causes.