Vote Early, Vote Often
Heydar Aliyev was a former KGB member and leader of Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union, yet still managed to become president of independent Azerbaijan in 1993. He’d rule the nation for the next decade, but when he fell ill in 2003, his son ran for his seat, winning easily. Since 2003, that son, Ilham Aliyev, has served as the president of Azerbaijan. The world typically does not look favorably upon his reign. He is widely regarded to be an autocrat who abused his position to maintain his power, and the 2013 Azerbaijani was no exception.
On October 8, 2013, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan announced the unsurprising results of that election. Aliyev was re-elected president, with just under 73% of the vote, as relayed to the people and the press by a mobile election app the Commission had developed. International election watchers, who were skeptical (to say the least) going in, cried foul nearly immediately. Aliyev’s reputation was far from stellar and his regime had been accused of repressing dissent. This was especially alleged to have occurred at the ballot box, with accusations of rampant intimidation and outright voter fraud a common complaint. In most cases, the government would simply assert that everything was on the up and up and pooh-pooh the objections as conspiratorial nonsense. But in this case, Azerbaijan had a problem — there was simply no way that Aliyev had won 73% of the vote.
That’s because no one had voted yet. Election day was scheduled for October 9th — the next day.
As the Washington Post reported, the Azerbaijani officials were slow to offer a credible explanation. At first, the Commission stated that they were simply testing the app, using election results from 2008. But that claim rang hollow, as the erroneously reported results mentioned the losing candidate from the 2013 election, not the 2008 one. A few weeks later, the Azerbaijan government produced a similarly unlikely but possible explanation: the voting results pushed to the app were nothing more than sample data — 15,000 votes total — similarly designed to test the app. That line had its own problems; the Azerbaijani government offered no explanation as to why Aliyev was given nearly three-quarters of the votes in this “sample,” nor why it took them three weeks to figure out what had happened.
Unfortunately, like most questionable elections, the actual results put the autocrat in power by a large margin. The next day, Aliyev won by nearly 3 million votes, with only 3.7 million votes cast.
From the Archives: Silent Protest: Voting irregularities from another part of the former Soviet Union.
Related: “Azerbaijan: A Political History” by Suha Bolukbasi.