Thursday, October 23, 2008

Election day - by the numbers

I always have some interesting experiences on OSCE election missions – meeting interesting people, visiting out-of-the-way places, tasting regional foods and wine, and at least learning to say “thank you” in the local language.

But the actual purpose of my participation on these trips – working as part of an international team to observe and report on the progress of the democratic process in countries formerly ruled as one-party dictatorships – is always a bit more difficult to describe because it’s a process that’s very alien to most of my friends and family.

Election Day generally begins by waking up before dawn in a strange place without hot water.

If we’ve managed to arrange for a breakfast of any kind it’s usually very basic – tea; bread, maybe with butter, honey, or cheese; perhaps a single fried egg.

After that, my partner and I are picked up by our local driver and translator and we travel to a polling place that we’ve scouted out the day before, where we watch the election workers prepare for voting to begin.

Waiting for the voters to arrive

In some countries, we are lavished with hospitality – in others, it’s more subdued.

In the Republic of Georgia last May, we were treated to an initial welcoming of tea, soon followed by several rounds of toasts with strong local wine – all before the polls opened at 8 a.m., and repeated at a dozen polling places over the course of the day.

Yes, a bit much – but it does make filling out all my observation reports a bit more lively…

Election Observation Forms

Although friendly, the Azeri people were a bit more reserved – and it makes for an interesting contrast in cultures.

The lack of alcohol may have been due to the fact that the Azeri are Muslim. Unlike followers of Islam in Persia and Arabia, the cultures I’ve experienced in Albania, Turkey and Azerbaijan seem to be fine with alcohol, although it seems to be reserved for meals – unlike the Orthodox Christians in neighboring Armenia and Georgia, who include local wine in almost any social gathering.

An exit poll! They must know Wolf Blitzer...

So far, of the countries where I have observed elections, Azerbaijan was the most orderly and businesslike. Although my colleagues in other parts of Azerbaijan saw a few discrepancies in how well each polling place followed the rules, the places I visited in and around Gadabay seemed to be doing everything by-the-numbers.

If anything, observing this particular election was almost dull – perhaps because there was very little doubt about the outcome.

Counting the votes

Even before I was offered the chance to observe this election, it was generally accepted that President Ilham Aliyev would be re-elected by a large margin.

In 2003, he was elected to succeed his retired father - Heydar Aliyev – with 76% of the vote. Afterwards, organizations like the OSCE and Human Rights Watch concurred that there were number of irregularities in the counting and tabulation

Although many of the Azeri opposition parties claimed that the election wasn’t completely fair, Ilham has managed to maintain high popularity in a country where politics are based more on personality than policy.

In fact, to an outsider, the politics of Azerbaijan seem almost cult-like.

There is a statue of his father Heydar in every town, public buildings and streets are named after him, and his portrait is all over the place – and things there’s definitely a feeling of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In fact, Aliyev is following in his father’s footsteps so well that even you would probably recognize him!

President Ilham Aliyev
In the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Aliyev's photo is shown during the credits.

In the film, he is supposedly the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan - who in reality is President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

So, what happens in an election where a second-generation incumbent is popular enough to name everything in the country after his father?

Well, many of the opposition parties boycotted the election, but they are so insignificant that no one – not the local election committee, not the voters, and not even our own translator – was aware of the boycott.

What else happens?

Well, Ilham Aliyev wins the election with over 88.73% of the votes – the next-closest of the six other candidates got only 2.86% of the votes.

And what does the OSCE think about this?

Well, the OSCE said that there was progress in this election compared to past ones as far as the technical aspects of what happens on election day – how voters sign in, get their ballots, cast them in privacy, and how the votes are counted and the results are tabulated.

But they didn’t think that the election met international standards from the perspective of how the campaigns were run – particularly the lack of competition.

After all, is it really a Democracy when the ruling political party can compel government employees and students in state schools to attend their campaign events?

How “fair and balanced” can an election be when the media only covers the ruling political party?

How much Democracy can there be when a single family – first father, then son – have continuous rule of a country for almost 40 years?

The big test will come in 2013, when President Ilham Aliyev completes his second term.

According to the Constitution of Azerbaijan, the president is limited to two terms of office – just like here in the United States (though they have 5-years terms and we have 4-year administrations).

Will they change the rules to allow Ilham to run for a third term?

Will his wife run to replace him, until their son is old enough?

And is this something that can only happen in Azerbaijan?

Sadly, no…

North Korea has seen their totalitarian regime handed down from father to son, and communist Cuba has seen its leadership passed on from one brother to another…

And here in America?

Although we’re much more Democratic than either North Korea or Cuba, we’ve come very close to a presidential succession of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton…

And just today, the New York City Council decided to change the rules to allow incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for a third term – even though the voters have twice voted in favor of term limits for the mayor and city council…

Democracy – it’s never as simple as it seems…

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