Extensive social-media videos of scuffles between election officials, police and independent observers, apparent ballot-box stuffing, and suspected carousel voting bring into question the validity of Azerbaijan’s February 9 parliamentary vote, opposition members say.
The South Caucasus country’s Central Election Commission pledged to investigate all such recordings.
The videos, widely disseminated among Azerbaijani Facebook users, categorically contradict the government and mainstream media’s message that the election was free and fair; a kickoff for the “reforms” supposedly heralded by the 2019 removal, resignation, and transfer of many old-guard officials.
The recordings show pre-marked ballots, public ballot stuffing, and physical and verbal bust-ups between election commission workers and observers who flagged irregularities. Ambulances were also filmed apparently bussing voters from nearby villages to polling stations in the city of Kurdamir, about 204 kilometers west of Baku. Dozens of uniformed soldiers were delivered to a polling station at an unidentified location.
In one Baku polling station, opposition Republican Alternative candidate Ferhad Mehdiyev was filmed sitting on a ballot container allegedly to prevent election workers from submitting the ballots without a protocol. Mehdiyev claimed that the vote count showed that the pro-government candidate for this district had lost the race.
Independent observers noted that both journalists and observers were often prevented from taking photos or shooting video of suspected irregularities.
“They don’t let them ask questions, chat, and [in some polling stations] they’re not allowed to move out of specially set aside places,” said Akif Gurbanov, the head of the Institute of Democratic Initiatives, a non-profit watchdog group. “By comparison with past elections, the pressure is stronger and is widespread.”
Central Election Commission chairman Mazakhir Panakhov claimed that officials would take a harsher stance than in the past toward those who violated election law.
“We’ll take tough measures in connection with this,” Panakhov told a February 10 press conference. “Election commissions do not have the right to allow mistakes; even more so, to do this deliberately.”
If necessary, he added, the Central Election Commission will involve “law enforcement organs.”
At the same time, Panakhov urged caution against provocations -- an apparent reference to opposition complaints. "Whether countries or people, each person has his own interests and sometimes it happens that not everything works out the way desired," he said.
With an exit poll by AJF & Associates, Inc., a U.S. company, suggesting that President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni (New) Azerbaijan Party maintained its majority, winning 69 of the legislature’s 125 seats, government officials have largely emphasized the positive.
Yeni Azerbaijan's executive secretary, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Ahmadov, expressed gratitude to voters “who voted for the policy of the President of Azerbaijan.”
The exit poll, which surveyed 1,053 constituencies, found that none of Azerbaijan’s main opposition parties captured a percentage of the vote. Deputies are elected based on a first-past-the-post system and serve for five years.
Ali Kerimli, leader of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, which boycotted the election, denounced AJF & Associates, Inc on Facebook as “a fake exit poll company.”
“The regime sends a message to the people that we do not count …” he charged.
Despite the reports of abuses, Central Election Commission Deputy Chairman Rovzat Gasymov on February 9 characterized the vote’s conduct as “normal.” The CEC estimated that 44 percent of Azerbaijan’s 5.2 million registered voters had voted as of 5 p.m.
Calls to the CEC’s hot line, he said, had been about “technical” issues and “clarifying certain questions.”
Opposition members appear to already have “certain questions.”
Republican Alternative party leader Ilgar Mammadov noted that the official tally of voters in his own district of Baku implied that “an average of 67 people per hour” had voted between 10 a.m. and noon.
“One person per minute! Everything is clear enough!” he wrote on Facebook.
In another Baku district, where Musavat Party leader Arif Hajili was a candidate, voting was suspended in one polling station after an alleged brawl between observers and a supporter of one candidate. Musavat said that the charges were unfounded, Turan reported.
Human rights activist Anar Mammadli, head of the non-governmental Elections Monitor and Democracy Studies Center, attributed these irregularities to polling station workers’ often inadequate grasp of election regulations.
“They don’t know the procedure, and, as a result, we see violations toward the observers and representatives of the candidates for parliament,” he told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
While social media documented a steady stream of such violations, government-aligned news agencies focused on observers from Azerbaijani allies, France, Germany, and the U.S. who praised the vote’s conduct.
Aside from longtime partners such as Georgia, Israel, Russia, and Turkey, observers from countries with which Azerbaijan wants to cultivate stronger economic or strategic ties – Belarus, Brazil, Pakistan, and Vietnam – also deemed the vote “transparent” and up to international standards.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which dispatched 380 long and short-term observers to monitor the vote, will give its own evaluation on February 10.
Additional Reporting From: RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, APA, Trend, and Turan news agencies