As a friend and colleague once wrote for an American newspaper, “Democracies don’t just spring up…Healthy democracies are built from the ground up, a process akin to the construction of a modern building. A solid foundation must be laid first, then the framing, flooring, walls and façade.”
Such is the case in Azerbaijan, a progressive and secular Muslim-majority nation located on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, which recently held parliamentary elections. These elections were somewhat of a watershed moment for the young emerging democracy, born a mere 24 years ago out of the ashes of the Soviet Union.
Criticisms from some corners regarding the lack of opposition party involvement and too few opposition candidates notwithstanding, I found a populace that was engaged and interested in electing their representatives in parliament.
In speaking with voters at various polling places, as I was part of a multi-national group observing the elections (Americans, a German and I, an Israeli), gone was the Soviet-era sense of reticence and fait accompli once associated with voting during the Soviet days. A lack of opposition parties and candidates or not, people seemed genuinely excited about their respective candidates and hopeful for their candidate’s success.
The process seemed quite impressive, even by Israeli standards and from what I know of America’s. The poll workers were clearly well-trained and knew how to administrate their respective polling places. The process was orderly and organized, yet welcoming…much like voting in Israel.
Clearly sensitive to past criticisms of their elections, the Azerbaijanis unmistakably organized their elections to both guard against further criticism and orchestrate an election that stood squarely within Western norms. By my observation, they succeeded.
The safeguards associated with the voting were impressive. My American co-observers lamented that the safeguards in the US were not as evolved or present as they were in Azerbaijan. A case in point, Azerbaijani voters, upon completion of voting, had their thumbs sprayed with a sort of invisible ink. Should that individual attempt to vote a second time, he/she would be found out by the poll workers stationed at the entrance to every polling place and prepared with an ultraviolet lamp.
Of particular interest to my American friends, yet a normality in Israel, was the requirement of government-issued identification. Each voter was mandated, as part of the voting process, to show identification that was compared to the voting rolls in order to receive their ballot.
Additional measures were taken to ensure a transparent election. Locks and guards, as well as polling place workers and the public independently kept a watchful eye on the ballot boxes, for instance. Also, the number of citizens who voted was compared to the left over ballots to ensure no repeat voting, ballots misused or lost.
A “democracy coming of age” development was evident outside of most polling places…private exit pollsters. In reality, we in Western democracies lament exit pollsters, but they are a sign of an evolved or evolving democracy.
Seemingly, the foremost controversy associated with Azerbaijan’s elections came from the outside, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the US Department of State. Apparently, OSCE insisted on sending far and away more observers than they customarily send to other nations, including nations not at all on their way to a full-fledged democracy like Azerbaijan. Official Baku objected and questioned OSCE’s insistence. In response, in “temper tantrum fashion” OSCE arbitrarily and unilaterally cancelled their own delegation…period.
Fast forward and the OSCE made some less than complementary statements about Azerbaijan’s elections and the US Department of State followed suit. Neither showed up for the elections and neither had any direct knowledge of the elections. It seems odd to criticize when one has no direct knowledge, but that was the OSCE’s and the US Department of State’s course. It feels a little like the UN’s conduct to my own nation…prejudicial, crooked and about someone’s anti-Israel or in this case anti-Azerbaijan agenda.
During election day and the days following, I bumped into other observers from other delegations…Italians, representatives from various Arabs states, Americans, other Israelis and there was a universal theme. The Azerbaijanis have spent a lot of time, money and effort to build the necessary foundations of a sustainable, liberal and stable democracy and that they are far ahead of other nations greater in age. Further, that elections are a necessary next step to this building process and that Azerbaijan is well on its way to having abundant success in this realm, too.
It would seem to me that the US and the OSCE and whomever else oddly sees fit to be a detractor of Azerbaijan would do well to support such a promising young democracy and such an exceptional, tolerant and pluralistic society.
Arye Gut is a noted expert on the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and the head of the Israeli NGO, International Society Projects.