The headquarters of the country’s railroad commission is an imposing building. Lots of people climbed the stairs into the lobby where a dozen voting booths were used by dozens of people every few minutes to cast their short paper ballots for president. Out of each private voting booth came men and women who walked their ballots to a large clear plastic box with a slot on top. The ballots were inserted into the box to be counted after polls closed.
Presidential election, April 12, 2018, in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku. No police officers or government agents present. President Ilham Aliyev was re-elected for a seven year term.
What were present were credentialed opposition party members observing the process with eagle eyes. Fifteen by my count. Only one spoke English; he explained to me how they were credentialed and how they were there looking for any irregularities in the voting process. He reported neither he nor his fellow observers had seen anything irregular.
At the front of the lobby was a giant board with the list of registered voters. Each person’s identification was checked by the voting staff. They coordinated names and the voters list before they were handed a ballot. No one was turned away while I was there.
On we went to another polling place in downtown Baku (population 3 million). This time, the polling place was in a commercial building with store front merchants, hardly any parking and a line of people stretching from the street into the building to a small hall full of people. The line consistently numbered a hundred or so people with new people lining up as others voted and left. Ordinary people with the exception of many young people. The voting age is 18.
Again no police officers or government agents.
This time, however, the opposition party observers numbered far more than what we saw in the railroad office building a mile away. I counted thirty of them. When I asked for anyone that spoke English, a well-dressed middle-aged woman stood and asked me who I was, looked over my identification badge that clearly stated I was a foreign election observer and asked how she could help me.
I asked: Why so many observers? Well, she said, we have 27 political parties.
In that I saw an imperfection. That joined one I brought with me from California where I had read that major political opposition to President Ilham Aliyev had declared a boycott to the election.
One, too many political parties. That demonstrates political immaturity of the opposition. Two, boycotting the election demonstrates far more than political immaturity, it shows a lack of political will and intelligence.
Opposition parties should never boycott, that only adds to a victory by larger percentages. In this case, President Aliyev would have won; won, perhaps, by a smaller margin than the 86 percent he won with but he would have won anyway.
The opposition could wave their percentage around and use it to build its numbers for the next election. Like 27 political parties in a nation of 9 million-plus people, a voter boycott shows nothing that a larger percentage of the votes doesn’t. The large number of parties and a voter boycott are so European. European and highly ineffective.
Single legislative district winner-take-all and a strong executive elected by a process that works for fixed term are features of the U.S. system, not a proportional multi-party system that imposes fragility in governance and political pairings of parties that have little in common. I may be wrong but that is my view.
Back to the voters. The long line of people kept walking into the hall, presenting their identification, handed a paper ballot, entering a private voting booth and voting. Many young people voted.
Azerbaijan, like many of the voters that voted, is young; its politics started evolving from that of an oppressed Soviet satellite, blundered into an incompetent Popular Front coalition government when it declared independence, then functioned as an incompetent nation until it drafted Heydar Aliyev as president. He and his advisors settled the situation and made agreements with western companies to bring a modern economy into the new country. They looked west for guidance.
Burdened with a million refugees, no decent contracts to develop the historically important petroleum industry and scarce democratic traditions, Azerbaijan dumped its communist-imposed ways and looked west. This election is for the future, unburdened by the tumultuous past Heydar Aliyev overcame a quarter century ago.
All of that came to mind as I watched hundreds of Azerbaijanis line up patiently to vote for president. Watching all the young people waiting to vote was impressive. Watching a nascent democratic people join with a secular society that is friendly to the United States reminded me the part of the world I was in, sandwiched between Russia and Iran.
One can only guess that the next presidential election — in seven years — will be openly competitive with no silly boycotts.
That augers well for the future of this young country.
Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of The Armenian Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy and “Murder in the Mountains: War Crime in Khojaly.” He also wrote for the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.