Ganja Voters Hope for Chance for “Real Elections”
By Jahan Aliyeva: 11/06/05

Election day got off to a bad start for Gasimova Saida, after the 46-year-old resident of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, failed to find the names of her relatives on voter lists in the city’s #38 constituency. “I do not trust such a democracy any more,” Saida declared. “They did it on purpose.”

Incomplete voting lists are a long-time problem for Azerbaijani elections, but, as an inspection of two constituencies in Ganja, a city of about 330,000, showed, they are far from unique. Charges of ballot box irregularities and pressure being placed on candidates to withdraw or on voters to support individual candidates favored by the city government were also common.

The charges took on particular poignancy in this northern city, a long-term bastion of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP). YAP and the administration of President Ilham Aliyev have repeatedly stressed their commitment to free and fair elections. International organizations have been encouraged by the president’s last, October 25 election decree authorizing vote monitoring by foreign-funded non-governmental organizations and the use of ink on voter fingers to prevent multiple voting. The decree has been welcomed as a sign that the government intended to follow through on its pledge to hold transparent elections.

Referring to the president’s decrees on holding democratic elections, government and election commission representatives in Ganja have strongly denied the charges of deliberate meddling in the vote or of taking measures to influence voters’ choices.

But their statements have done little to reassure Saida. “[The polling station officials] were ordered to do everything possible in favor of the candidates who are supported by the government of Ganja,” Saida said. “I am sure [President] Ilham Aliyev does not know about the falsifications in Ganja” she added.

Ramiz Guliyev, chief of the # 38 constituency election commission, stated that the problem had more to do with identity documents than orders from Ganja authorities, however. By mid-afternoon on November 6, more than 100 voters had already complained that they could not find their names on voter lists, he said.

“As usual, people do not change their ID’s when they move to other apartments. Many voters got the new identification cards a little before election day, which means that with their new ID cards, they registered in the [polling] places where they live now,” Guliyev said. “ Each constituency prepared a list of voters one month, even two months ago. That’s why it led today to a mess in the lists.”

About 150,000 voters were registered to take part in the elections in Ganja.

As the day proceeded, however, voter list problems in the #38 constituency were bypassed by a fresh problem: a claim of an attempt at stuffed ballot boxes.

Hidayet Eminbeyli, an observer from the opposition Taraggi (Progress) Party in the constituency’s 8th polling station told journalists that he had witnessed a member of the electoral commission try to throw 140 ballots into a box of ballots for one candidate. After other candidates from the constituency began to arrive at the polling station, voting at the 8th polling station stopped for half an hour while polling officials corrected the problem.

“The May 11 presidential decree [on holding free and fair elections] is being violated in this station,” said Eminbeyli. “It is absolutely unfair and not a transparent election.”

Constituency election commission chief Zakir Huseynnov stated that the problem had been prevented “in time” and that the head of the polling station “would be asked to explain what happened.”

In another constituency, #37, slightly different reactions prevailed. Andreas Gross, rapporteuer for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), told EurasiaNet that he had not observed any violations after six and a half hours of monitoring at #18 polling station. Gross added, however, that the polling station’s cramped quarters “make it hard to observe the whole process from every corner of the polling station.”

One candidate commented that Gross’s presence in the polling station likely had an effect on the transparency of the voting process. “It’s impossible to have 100 Andreas Grosses at each polling station in order to have a democratic and transparent voting process,” said Chingiz Mammadov, an independent candidate in Ganja’s #38 constituency.

Mammadov took issue with ballots not being kept in chronological order – a situation that provides a chance for election officials to falsify ballots, he claimed.

The election campaign in #37 constituency has been far from controversy-free. Many local observers and journalists say that each constituency in Ganja has a favorite candidate supported by the city government.

Tahmina Tagiyeva, a local journalist in Ganja, said employees of hospitals and secondary schools have stated, on condition of anonymity, that local government officials call staff members and urge them to vote for candidates supported by the city government. Among the reported incentives: alleged payments of 50,000 manats (about $11) to city health department employees in return for voting for Aydin Abbasov, son of Azerbaijan’s deputy prime minister, and a Yeni Azerbaijan Party candidate in the #37 constituency.

Journalists say that Abbasov was also accused of having renovated the roofs of secondary schools #2 and #23 to gain votes. The city’s education department has denied these allegations.

Akif Alesgerov, deputy head of Ganja’s governing executive committee, echoed those denials, telling EurasiaNet that “it is all rumors spread by certain groups.”

“The executive committee does not have enough funds to distribute such amounts of money. We are busy and doing everything in accordance with the presidential decree of 11 May,” Alesgerov said

Meanwhile, residents of Ganja have come up with their own analysis of the city’s election day woes. “We, the voters, are being made to feel satisfied at every election, but no one cares for us otherwise,” taxi driver Azad Novruzov said. “Enough is enough. This is our chance to hold real elections,”

Editor's Note: Jahan Aliyeva is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

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