Azerbaijan: Opposition, Government Tussle over Referendum Turnout
Despite an opposition boycott, official data shows that Azerbaijani voters have turned out in sufficient numbers to validate a controversial March 18 referendum that would provide an option for extending presidential terms of office, among other constitutional changes.
More than 65 percent of Azerbaijan's roughly 4.9 million registered voters took part in the vote by the time the country's 5,367 polling stations closed at 7pm, according to the Central Election Commission. Election officials had registered a 30 percent turnout by noon, just four hours after the polls opened. A 25-percent showing is required to validate the vote.
"We already can say that the referendum [is valid]. The participation level is high enough and I can say that voters were active," declared Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov.
If the amendments are approved, as widely expected, President Ilham Aliyev will be able to extend his term once it ends in 2013 in case of a "state of war." A similar provision would apply to parliament. Such extensions, however, would be contingent on a Constitutional Court ruling at the request of the Central Election Commission.
Similarly controversial changes put restrictions on media's ability to photograph, film and record individuals without their consent, and authorize central government supervision of local government's "activities."
Although preliminary referendum results have not yet been issued, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) has already begun to celebrate the passage of its proposed 41 constitutional amendments.
"Information from more than 5,000 [party] observers . . . about the voting results and voter participation show that the referendum has been successful," a party statement announced. President Aliyev, the party's chairman, did not comment on the vote to reporters when he showed up at a Baku polling station with his wife and one daughter.
The opposition, however, maintains that the turnout figures are fabricated. Party leaders from the opposition coalitions Republicans and For Karabakh and the Republic will announce their own findings at a briefing on March 19, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar told EurasiaNet. "According to our information, 15 percent of voters took part in the referendum, so we can say that the referendum did not [clear the needed voter-participation threshold]," Gambar said. "Statements by official organs that the referendum allegedly successfully took place are not true."
Gambar dismissed as suspect exit poll data showing strong support for the proposed constitutional changes. Survey results released by a non-governmental organization, the Association for Civil Society Development, along with the ELS Center of Independent Research, found that "more than 50 percent" of interviewed voters at 800 polling stations nationwide supported the amendments. "It is pseudo-independent organizations that execute the will and orders of the government," Gambar said of the association's data.
Under Azerbaijani election law, polling stations must release their final voting protocols to the CEC within 48 hours after polls close. Official results must be announced within 20 days of March 18.
Both the CEC and YAP claimed that no "serious" election law violations had been recorded during the vote.
International observers have not yet commented on the voting process. German Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Per Stankina, who observed the referendum, told the APA news agency that he had seen no voting problem during the day.
The opposition coalitions, which boycotted the vote, stated, however, that officials had relied on longtime election violations such as carousel-voting, failing to mark voter fingers with ink and letting one person vote with multiple ballots.
One bus driver near a Baku polling station told EurasiaNet that local officials had instructed drivers to transport voters to the polls. "We go wherever they instruct us and local government employees called people to vote. We take people to the polling station," said the driver, who asked for anonymity.
CEC spokesperson Azer Sariyev countered that there is "nothing illegal" in helping people to reach a polling station, especially if it is far from voters' houses.
One Baku information technology manager asserts that Azerbaijanis should vote, whether the poll is rigged or not. "Even if I do not believe fully that the voting process is fair, I take part in voting as it is my right, my duty," said Emil Suleymanov. "I do not want that someone else could use my vote."
Not all of the amendments, however, were clear, he added -- a criticism that has been echoed by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. "Some points I understood, but some I did not," he said.
But more comprehensible questions would not have brought schoolteacher Afag Bakirova to the polls. "I would go to vote if I believed that my vote would be taken into account. But I do not believe in a fair vote count," Bakirova said. "I do not believe in that, so I do not go."
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter in Baku.
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