From boredom and camaraderie to confrontations with carousel voters, this was my experience as an observer in Azerbaijan’s recent election.
This was a classic Azerbaijani election: ballot stuffing, voting carousels, dead people voting, and foreign observers parroting each other about how everything was transparent and democratic.
Anyone interested in Caucasus politics is well-aware of this kind of stuff. But reading about it or watching videos of it on YouTube and Facebook is very different from actually participating in it.
I never voted in elections before. Partly because I lived in Turkey and partly because I am an anarchist. This time was different. I decided to take part in elections as an observer for a friend — Samed Rahimli.
It would be safe to say this experience changed me forever. Samed was running for the 34th Khatai electoral district. A region of Baku I was connected to by virtue of being born there and having lived there for six years.
I was back in Khatai after 20 years. It was particularly cold, nearly 0°C. Yet I had the desire to experience the election. I arrived near the polling station at 7:00 in the morning. The election was to start at 8:00 and last until 19:00.
Cut corners and carousels
The voting at the 19th polling station, based in school No 269, where I was stationed, was immediately marred by irregularities, and at the hands of the polling station ‘master’, no less.
Her name is Khalida Abdullayeva, a 70-year-old woman and the vice-principal of school No 269.
Shortly after I and other observers arrived we witnessed her take six ballots and cut their corners. This is prohibited by election law since you can only cut the corner of a ballot if you are giving it to a voter. It’s meant to indicate that the ballot has been used.
I protested against it with other observers. Khalida asked for our forgiveness and told us that they will give out these ballots first.
The rest of the day continued without any major incidents, though the turnout was very low. In the meantime, I got to know the other observers who were representing other candidates — all independent.
Despite some partisan observers not objecting to irregularities if their candidate happens to benefit, we all decided to work together to ensure that our common rival, Mikhail Zabelin from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, did not steal the election.
A little later, a few residents of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic arrived to vote. They brought temporary Khatai residence permits with them. At first, I went along with it, because I didn’t realise that they had to vote in the district of their permanent residence unless they also had explicit papers showing permission from the Central Election Committee.
But as voter after voter from Nakhchivan came to the polling station, it started to become clear what was happening — carousel voting. In other words, this was an organised group of voters going around to many different polling stations and voting in each one.
During the first major influx of carousel voters, Imran Alakbarov, a candidate and a lawyer by profession, ambushed the carousel voters and filmed them as they tried to vote.
A little later, another candidate, Shahlar Hajiyev, also visited the station and confronted a different group of carousel voters.
‘Why won’t you let me vote?’ One of the carousel voters asked him. ‘Maybe I would vote for you!’
‘I don’t need your vote!’ Mr Hajiyev replied.
This was the spirit I came looking for in these elections. His remark and the strength with which he gave it sparked some little hope inside me.
‘Bored to death’
After 17:00, voter turnout decreased sharply, with only eight people coming to vote. This was when I saw the ‘shadow observers’ who were apparently all staff and teachers at school No 269 disappear.
I was told by other observers that they were put in the station in case there was a major protest by the real observers. But, because of the low turnout, they must have been bored to death.
While waiting for time to pass, a member of the polling station committee, Azer Alakbarov, a well-known educator who received the ‘Honored Teacher’ award from President Ilham Aliyev, told us we should all go home, since the 25% quorum was not met.
This sounded suspicious to me since a quorum requirement is only applicable in a referendum and there was absolutely no way that he didn’t know this.
I think he probably said it just to make us go home.
Voting ended at 19:00. As soon as the polls closed, the unused ballots had to have a corner cut (the opposite of the corner that had to be cut if they were given to a voter) and then stamped. It was a laborious task, since out of 1,124 ballots, only 123 were used.
To be on the safe side, I recorded the whole process on video. After it was finished, it was time for the station master to write down the points of protocol: how many voters were on the list, how many came to vote, how many ballots were unused, and so on.
The polling station secretary, Elman Nadirov, told us he would first write a draft copy of the protocol, which would later be copied by the station master. He said he wanted to get it right because if a small error happened on the official paperwork, it would be a disaster.
The other observers and I told him it was okay.
Then it was time to open the ballot box and count the votes. There were three ineligible ballots — three people protested the election. The New Azerbaijan Party candidate received 24 votes, his rival, independent candidate Nijat Gasimzadeh, received 33, the most of any candidate at our polling station.
My candidate, Samed Rahimli, only got six votes, but it was okay for me as long as Zabelin lost. But most observers left after it became clear that their chosen candidate wouldn’t win. They went home without asking to look at the completed protocol.
This is when everything started to go wrong.
Khalida has a headache
‘I have a headache, I can’t write the protocol yet’, polling station master Khalida Abdullayeva started saying. ‘Let me sort out the school stuff first’.
All committee members started to clear up the tables and stools around the voting station, saying students would be coming in the following day for school. I said ‘okay’ and waited with two other observers. But the protocol didn’t come.
I was getting angry and anxious since I had a plane flying to Turkey at 4:00 in the morning. Despite my protests, they shut me out of the room and began to write the protocol. My candidate, Samed Rahimli, arrived and started to demand our right to observe the protocol being written.
But the old, experienced Khalida Abdullayeva had one more trick to play — she said she could not find the stamp that would mark the protocol as official and complete. They dropped everything and started to ‘search’ for it.
It was never found and as I was running late for my flight, I had to leave. I didn’t see what happened after midnight. But according to other observers, seven other voting stations in the 34th Khatai electoral district suffered similar fates — protocols were not shown to observers, and copies were not given when asked for.
The next day, when I read the Central Election Committee’s results, I was in shock. According to them, out of 1,121 registered voters, 482 arrived to vote and 96 of them voted for New Azerbaijan Party candidate Mikhail Zabelin. But according to all observers, and my own eyes, the number of voters couldn’t be any greater than 123.
I guess they must have found that stamp at the end, though?
In any case, Samed Rahimli and other candidates plan to go to court and annul the results. Protocol copies that were successfully obtained from a couple of polling stations, and copious notes and visual materials, will prove that Mikhail Zabelin was not elected, or even if he was, he did it with barely a drop of real popular support.
This was a turning point for me. Getting angry at online videos was nothing next to this. I stood there for hours, counting every voter going in, personally stopping carousel voting, eating less just to observe — all of that turned to nothing in just a couple of hours.
I have never felt such true anger until that moment.
That was when I decided that I will involve myself in the voting process from now on. I learned how vote ‘rigging’ actually works. And getting to know it better will pave the way for me to devise a plan of how to stop it next time.
I didn’t lose hope and I didn’t throw myself into a pit of hatred either. I feel more conscious right now. I am proud that I defended my labour of waiting for hours and observing. Also, it felt good to protect the will of people I have never met in my life.
This election taught me that I have true friends, each of whom has a good conscience (we were all observers). I know there is a long way to go and that we are just beginning, only taking our first baby steps. But, nevertheless, we have started moving, and that is a huge advantage against the stagnant old order.
We said our first ‘OK boomer’ on 9 February 2020.
[Read more on Azerbaijan’s 2020 parliamentary election: Preliminary results show almost no change in Azerbaijan parliament]
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.