Who remembers Paul to the Octopus, who predicted the winners of several World Cup games from his tank? Paul was given two boxes with food, each decorated with the national flag of the team playing that day. Paul's prediction was based on which of these boxes he ate from first. One may ask, what on earth Paul has to do with a recent election in Azerbaijan?
Judging by the peculiar results, elections in this country on the shores of the Caspian Sea might as well be controlled by an octopus. On February 9, Azerbaijan held an early parliamentary election, nine months ahead of schedule. Although the decision was first proposed by the country's National Assembly, where 99.8 percent of deputies voted to dissolve parliament, the move was pushed forward by longtime President Ilham Aliyev who accepted the proposal in November and dismissed the legislature in December. Aliyev's decision to hold a snap election caught many observers by surprise. After municipal elections on December 23, the country's opposition had little time to turn around and start preparing for February 9.
Paul was given a fair choice. Although Azerbaijan's voters faced a choice of over 1,300 candidates, many pundits inside the country believed that the results of the election had been determined in advance. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan's authorities made an effort to convince the world of the transparency of their electoral system and integrity of the country's democracy — international human rights watchdogs remain to be convinced.
That's why some opposition parties boycotted the election. Others decided to participate, regardless of the predictions and aware that their chances of victory were very low. Nevertheless, candidates seen as loyal to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party won all but one of the 125 seats in the National Assembly. And although some observers had been wondering whether the authorities were planning to bring new faces into Azerbaijani politics, 87 parliamentarians kept their seats.
Turnout was low at just 48 percent.
A traditional election day
“The restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition,” reads the preliminary report by election observers from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), released on February 10. The report also spoke of “significant procedural violations” in vote counting and tabulation. One of these incidents, featuring member of parliament Jale Aliyeva, is an illustrative example.
I would like to thank everyone who bravely fought in this election, when needed, throwing folders at people; grabbing phones out of hands, and throwing them on the ground [then, quickly correcting herself: “almost to the point of throwing them on the floor”]… Let me just say, we worked as one team.
This was Jale Aliyeva's fourth reelection as deputy for Zerdab, a city in central Azerbaijan.
Much like previous elections, it seems that this one featured all the usual vote-rigging techniques. Journalists have attested to carousel voting, ballot stuffing, rigging tabulations, and harassment of independent observers.
Meanwhile, there were reports of international observers with dubious credentials:
— Anar Mammadli (@MammadliAnar) February 9, 2020
Mamadli also offered a more detailed post-mortem of the election:
With the help of smartphones and social media, the ruling political team were shamed at home and abroad. As a result, reactions both internationally and locally increased. The political regime is living through difficult times as a result of social/economi discontent. This is precisely why, they changed the election dates, so to prevent organising and political maturity of the society. Now, by going against a few of their supporters in 4-5 constituencies they are trying to do damage control. This is why, it is important to focus on the legal violations rather than political results. Overall, without finishing the struggle on legal violations discussing the results of the election from a political point of view, does not really help with protection of democratic freedoms. Basically, the election were held in an emergency rule, with mass police intervention. An adeqaute response to this situation would be pursuing legal proceedings and public shaming. In short, legal disputing play an irriplaceble role in the process of losing confidence and political influence of the authoritarian regimes.
Anar Mammadli (also spelled Mammadov) heads the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, the only independent election observation organisation in the country. The four or five election precincts he mentions are a reference to the CEC (Central Electoral Commission) decision to cancel election results in at least four constituencies due to electoral fraud. On February 13, the head of the CEC Mezahir Penahov went as far as to even thank social media users in helping to document these violations, something unheard of in a country where members of the parliament regularly criticise social media platforms and often suggest ways to control and monitor their use.
The ample amount of evidence circulating online and mentioned in the reports of international observers forced a response not only from the CEC but also from president Aliyev himself. On February 10, the president had said that these were free and fair elections. But just four days later, vowed to thoroughly investigate all allegations of violations at voting stations.
International partners have also voiced concern about how the elections were conducted, such as this statement by the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
The United Kingdom is disappointed that Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections did not meet international democratic standards, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
And this Tweet by Germany's Foreign Office:
The restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition during parliamentary elections in #Azerbaijan according to @osce_odihr. We call on 🇦🇿 to implement recommendations of @osce_odihr – which we stand ready to support with EU. https://t.co/a8DAOm299E
— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) February 11, 2020
Independent observer Javid Agha wrote the following reflection on the election for Open Caucasus Media:
The next day, when I read the Central Election Committee’s results, I was in shock. According to them, out of 1,121 registered voters, 482 arrived to vote and 96 of them voted for New Azerbaijan Party candidate Mikhail Zabelin. But according to all observers, and my own eyes, the number of voters couldn’t be any greater than 123.
On February 11, a group of candidates, journalists, and political activists gathered outside the CEC's offices in the capital of Baku to protest the election results. Police detained more than 20 independent and opposition candidates and used excess violence against them. The police have since been driving protesters out to remote regions of the country and dumping them there.
Hitting the reset button
Due to these irregularities, some citizens have called for the election results to be cancelled.