BAKU, Azerbaijan — A fierce wind was blowing off the Caspian Sea earlier this month as I arrived at Precinct 29 in Baku’s Khatai district to observe the 2020 parliamentary elections of Azerbaijan.
Maybe it was the snow, or the fact that it was a bitterly cold Sunday morning — or maybe it was just apathy in a country where elections never really mattered much. Whatever the reason, 20 minutes passed before a voter, Khan Kishi, finally showed up to cast his ballot. Cameras clicked as the 66-year-old retired teacher pulled back a blue curtain, emerged from a cubicle labeled “7” and deposited his folded ballot into a large clear plastic bin labeled “2.”
“I have the right to vote,” Kishi responded when I asked him, through a Russian-speaking interpreter, why he was there. “I hope this will be good for Azerbaijan. We want members of parliament who will transfer our voices to the powerful.”
The timing of my trip wasn’t exactly a coincidence. Along with a handful of other Israeli-based journalists, I’d been invited to Baku to cover the Feb. 9 snap elections that President Ilham Aliyev had called two months earlier, after having dissolved the 125-seat Milli Majlis — Azerbaijan’s equivalent of the Knesset — and consolidating power with the firing of his longtime chief of staff and replacement of his prime minister.
Some 4,000 voters were eligible to vote at this particular precinct we had been assigned to “observe,” yet by 9:30 a.m., the 33 people I had counted sitting or standing around — all very official-looking — still clearly outnumbered the voters themselves.
In all, 1,314 candidates competed for parliamentary seats across this former Soviet republic, and the elections themselves were closely monitored by 77,000 domestic and 800 foreign observers from 55 countries. Of that total, 350 short-term and 12 long-term observers were deployed by the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has observed 10 Azerbaijani elections since 1995.
In addition, 132 journalists from 47 countries were accredited to cover the elections, which were taking place nine months ahead of schedule — and three weeks before Israel’s unprecedented third election for prime minister.
Alon Keysar, who advised Gideon Sa’ar in the recent Likud primaries, was also at Precinct 29 that wintry morning as one of three official Israeli observers.
“I came to Azerbaijan to make sure this election is really democratic, and that it follows all the rules,” he told me as voters began trickling in. “Every person must be able to vote in secret. In democratic societies, a secret vote is basic. Once it’s not secret, it’s not democratic.”
Lessons here for Israel?
Keysar, visiting the Caucasus nation of 10 million for the first time, noticed that Azerbaijani authorities did not allow campaign signs of any kind near the voting booths.
“I think that’s a very good thing. In Israel, when you’re coming to vote, everyone jumps on you,” he commented. “The law says no propaganda within 25 meters, but I think that’s not enough. Moreover, people are also marked with an ultraviolet blacklight pen to make sure they can’t vote twice.”
In addition, cameras have been installed in about 20% of Azerbaijan’s polling stations, and nearly 2,000 voting booths are specially equipped for handicapped people.
As Atayya Askerova, 59, dropped her folded ballot into the box and prepared to leave, I asked what she thought of the election.
“I am a citizen of Azerbaijan, and it’s my moral obligation to vote,” said the teacher. “This is very important for our future generations.”
The day before, our group met with Hikmat Hajiyev, head of the foreign policy affairs department of the presidential administration. He’s also a top adviser to Aliyev, who’s ruled Azerbaijan since he was elected in October 2003 — two months before the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev. The younger Aliyev then went on to ace the elections of 2008, 2013 and 2018 before pushing through referendums ending the two-term presidential limit and extending the term of office from five years to seven.
“Elections play an important role in the life of every country. The cabinet has been reshuffled and reforms are taking place,” Hajiyev proudly told us after praising Azerbaijan’s warm relationship with the Jewish people and the state of Israel. “Tomorrow’s election is another milestone. We should have more understanding between the legislative and executive branch. Reform is in a constant process. It is not limited to a certain period of time.”
Yet the day’s results surprised no one. Aliyev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party ended up winning 69 of 125 seats up for grabs, Mazahir Panakhov, head of the Central Election Commission, announced the next day after counting the results from 110 districts. All but one of the remaining seats went to small parties and independent candidates loyal to the president.
Voter turnout was 47.8%, with 2.5 million of 5.3 million eligible citizens actually casting ballots.
OSCE: Room for improvement
In its preliminary conclusions, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly said Azerbaijan’s “restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition” in the elections, despite the high number of candidates.
“Some prospective candidates were denied the right to stand, but candidate registration process was otherwise inclusive,” it said. “Voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political discussion. Many candidates used social media to reach out to the voters, but this did not compensate for the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. Instances of pressure on voters, candidates and their representatives were observed.”
And unlike in Israel — where voters are bombarded with TV ads, robocalls and posters on every street corner from Metula to Eilat — it was hard to tell an election was underway at all that Sunday morning in Azerbaijan.
“The campaign was largely indiscernible as a result of a politically controlled environment,” the OSCE concluded. “Most candidates did not present programs or views alternative to the ruling party’s policies. Overall the campaign was devoid of political engagement that is essential to a competitive campaign environment in which voters have a genuine choice.”
Perhaps it takes somebody from Albania — which for years was ruled by one of the most tyrannical, despotic dictatorships on Earth — to fully appreciate this.
Elona Gjebera, a lawmaker representing her Balkan country’s Socialist Party, came from Tirana to observe the Azerbaijani snap election. One of 32 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from 57 countries, Gjebera said this was her second observer mission; two years ago, she helped monitor the U.S. congressional elections from a precinct in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“We are not here for politics. We are here for the process. The OSCE has monitored this country for many years,” she said as voting got underway. “In general, we hope Azerbaijan has progressed since the previous election, and will demonstrate that they are upholding OSCE commitments and delivering on previous commitments.”
For years a Marxist dictatorship that considered the United States its mortal enemy and Israel a U.S. puppet, Albania is today one among the most pro-American countries in Europe, if not the world. Like Azerbaijan, this formerly communist yet predominantly Muslim nation is deeply sympathetic toward Jews, and it enjoys excellent relations with Israel.
“Albania has passed through different stages of transition, and it’s now a democracy — not a strong one, to be honest,” Gjebera acknowledged. “But we’re trying to develop. Nothing changes all at once.”
NOTE: The writer’s trip was organized and funded by the government of Azerbaijan.