Voters from three villages in Azerbaijan's Sabirabad Raion staged a protest
on December 28 against perceived procedural violations during the December 23 municipal elections. A total of 19 political parties participated, with the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) fielding over 50 percent of the 31,861 registered candidates, who competed for 15,682 seats on 1,718 local councils.
Historian Eldar Ismailov
of the NGO For Civic Society described the vote as "a step forward." But election observers from the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities noted shortcomings that they said cast doubt on the integrity of the ballot.
Azerbaijan Central Election Commission (MSK) press secretary Azer Saryyev said on December 29 that the commission received a total of 119 reports of procedural violations, all of which will be investigated. Only then, he said, will the MSK endorse the preliminary results. A second MSK member, Tofig Gasanov, said the results of the voting in the western town of Naftalan, where local officials had observers evicted from polling stations, may be annulled
. MSK Chairman Mazahir Panahov said on December 24
that none of the reported irregularities could have affected the overall outcome.
Voter turnout was officially estimated at 31.86 percent, which is 14 percent lower than in the previous municipal ballot in 2004, but Bashir Suleymanli of the Center for Election Monitoring told journalists on December 24
he believes the true figure was no higher than 17 percent. There is no minimum required turnout below which the poll would not be valid.
Eleven election observers deployed by the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities who monitored the vote in some 100 polling stations said in a report released on December 24 that although the elections were "well-prepared" and "took place in a calm atmosphere," the low turnout reflects "the lack of a truly pluralistic party landscape." They noted "shortcomings
concerning the counting of the voters in polling stations, the role and origin of local election observers, the readability of ballot papers and the regularity of the vote count," and concluded that incidents in some polling stations raise questions about the integrity of the ballot.
Azerbaijani NGOs and political parties were more categorical in their negative assessments. Suleymanli claimed
that the entire campaign, from nominating and registering candidates to election agitation to the actual vote and vote count, was marred by violations.
Arif Gadjili of the opposition Musavat party told a press conference on December 24 that the elections were not free, fair, or democratic. He accused the YAP of using all the resources at its disposal to engineer the outcome. Specifically, Gadjili noted the difficulties encountered by individual opposition candidates in registering to contest the ballot. He said that of "several thousand" Musavat members who sought to register
, only 554 succeeded in doing so, of whom 400 did not reveal their party affiliation when filing their official application.
Ali Kerimli of the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party highlighted what is possibly the most disquieting aspect of the ballot. The municipal elections, he said, were the first in which the country's leadership did not even bother to create a semblance of democracy
. That failure does not bode well for the parliamentary elections due in late fall of 2010.