Observers: Dip in Azerbaijani Voter Turnout Signals Apathy
By Jahan Aliyeva: 11/14/05

With less than half of all registered voters casting ballots, Azerbaijan’s November 6 parliamentary vote registered the lowest voter turnout in a decade. While the international community has praised reforms taken to ensure a free and fair election, some local observers suggest the dip in turnout points to a troubling trend: a feeling that Azerbaijanis do not have a stake in the vote.

The considerable drop in official voter turnout came on the heels of an intense and often bitter election campaign, with both opposition and pro-government parties spending millions on television airtime, posters and banners to present their point of view. The opposition staged repeated unauthorized rallies, broken up by police, while both opposition and pro-government candidates made use of so-called “black PR” or smear campaigns to tarnish contenders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Campaign spending, however, appears to have outstripped the result. Official figures from the Central Election Commission placed turnout at 46.66 percent of the country’s 4.66 million voters. In 2000, the last parliamentary election, a reported 68 percent of eligible voters turned up at the polls, while in the 1995 parliamentary vote that number was placed as high as 86 percent. International election monitors, however, have argued that earlier figures were inflated.

Experts cite the popular belief that a social gulf exists between ordinary Azerbaijanis and leaders of the opposition and governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party as part of the reason for the sluggish voter showing.

"First of all, it is the deep social difference between ordinary people and officials,” commented Arastun Oruclu, president of the East-West Research Center, in Baku. “When people saw that $1 million and other expensive and luxurious things in [ex-Health Minister] Ali Insanov’s villa and almost the same amount [of things] at the villas and offices of other sacked and detained high-ranking officials [arrested under suspicion of playing a role in a suspected coup plot], while an average Azerbaijani’s salary . . . is not enough for living, that made people more indifferent to the election.”

Hasan Guliyev, a cultural sociologist at Azerbaijan’s Academy of Sciences, however, says that opposition leaders as well as government officials have expensive cars, body guards and other perceived material privileges. The real reason for the low turnout, according to Guliyev, is that “Azerbaijanis have lost their belief in the power of their own voices, which has made them indifferent to their future.”

Part of that indifference, local observers say, stems from Azerbaijan’s track record for elections. Though the 2005 vote has been hailed for making improvements in transparency and in government attempts to check election law violations, none of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary votes to date have been deemed democratic by Western election monitoring missions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

“Indifference to democratic elections is the legacy left from Soviet authoritarianism,” commented Guliyev. “The older generation throughout the former Soviet Union accepts elections as a mandatory obligation. They do it [vote] not because they believe their voice can make a difference, but because they just should do it. As in Soviet times.”

Said Vahid Gazi, head of the Inam (Believe) Pluralism Center: “In practice, an Azerbaijani voter has never been given the opportunity to feel that his voice can make a difference and affect the legislative assembly. We need at least one fair and democratic election . . . which would set the solid foundation for election tradition.”

The government argues, however, that that tradition has already begun. The vote “re-affirmed a resolute departure from the ways and practices of the past,” a November 9 statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. Among the cited improvements: published voter lists, inking voter fingers to prevent multiple voting, exit polls as a check for official results, provision of free airtime regardless of candidates' political views, and the holding of officially sanctioned opposition rallies. “The outcome of the elections was generally supported by the independent polls [exit polls] and enhances [the] solid basis for the continuation of democratic transformation of the country,” the statement concludes.

Continuing that transformation, states the Academy of Sciences' Guliyev, depends in large part on closing the generation gap between political leaders and young voters. President Ilham Aliyev and main opposition leaders Ali Kerimli, Isa Gambar and Sardar Jalaloglu all came of age during the Soviet era. “The political elite of governmental officials and opposition leaders consist of people from the Soviet era with a Soviet mentality,” Guliyev commented. “Democratic changes need time and new generations.”

Other obstacles to voter participation are more deep-rooted. In many villages, traditional views on the role of women prevail. “We still have communities with a family tradition where it’s considered inappropriate behavior when a woman goes to the . . . polling station. If you take into consideration that freedom of expression is one of the basics of democracy, then such a tradition forms an obstacle for adapting to democracy,” Guliyev said.

Attention to mundane needs also plays a role in attracting voters' attention, observers say. Though the Central Election Commission canceled the registration of candidates who offered so-called “charitable” activities – repairing roads, roofs, faulty water lines – to voters, when parliament members fail to respond to social welfare needs after the election, some voters appear to see less reason to take part in the poll.

One voter's story illustrates the trend. “Several years ago I had a problem regarding my apartment and went to parliament to ask for help from our candidate. I saw a lot people like me in front of the parliament building and every one of them wanted to see their elected candidate [member of parliament],” recounted 60-year-old Elmira Isayeva, a retired nurse in Baku, “But well-dressed MPs rushed from expensive cars into the building pretending not to see those people.”

Isayeva said she will not vote in the next election because “no one cares about the voter after the election campaign.”

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

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A Baku resident submits her ballot during the Nov. 6 parliamentary elections in Baku. (Sitara Ibrahimova for EurasiaNet)