Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Moldova Gears Up

Moldova's parliamentary election is quickly approaching and a recent opinion poll by the Institute for Public Policy suggests that the Party of Communists should garner around 36% of the vote (see the Moldpres article for some details). Three other parties may pass the 6% threshold: the Liberal Democratic Party, Liberal Party, and Our Moldova Alliance. Our Moldova's polling numbers are the most problematic, with the point estimate below the threshold at 5.4% (the margin of error is 2.8%). An unpublished Imedia report notes that IPP polling has been criticized in the past, in part due to a perception of unreliability. A poll released in the month prior to the 2005 election underestimated the performance of the Bloc of Moldovan Democrats by around 19%, but the predictions for the Party of Communists and Christian Democratic People's Party were close to the final results. You can read more about the election at e-democracy.

[Thanks to Imedia for information on the polling]

Monday, March 23, 2009

Challenging the Political Opposition in Georgia

In late 2007, President Mikheil Saakashvili was accused of efforts to undermine dissenting voices through aggressive actions toward the media and a crackdown on opposition protesters. Prior to the ill-fated conflict with Russia in August 2008 his erstwhile ally in the Rose Revolution, Nino Burjanadze, surprisingly withdrew from parliamentary elections. Burjanadze has reappeared as a challenger in Georgia's politics, and her partisans now seem to be under additional scrutiny, with a report of ten party members arrested. Burjanadze plans a press conference to address the matter. I will post follow-up information as it appears.

UPDATE (3/23/09, 8:00 p.m.): Additional coverage from Eurasianet, RFE/RL, and

Sunday, March 22, 2009

All Politics is Local

While national votes receive more public attention, the selection of representatives for local offices often has significant policy repercussions. Not only do local politicians make important decisions (e.g., in some post-Soviet states local officials make land allocation decisions), but local office can provide a staging ground for nationwide campaigns.

Several weeks ago, many Russian regions held local elections, and United Russia performed well in these votes amid allegations of fraud. Some commentaries suggested that the party-of-power's strength might be waning in some areas, however. Yesterday, President Medvedev replaced the governor of Murmansk; although the governor is a member of United Russia, he supported an independent candidate for mayor. In the south, the mayoral election in Sochi has received attention due to the identity of the participants and the importance of the city as host to the upcoming Olympic Games.

In Armenia, defeated presidential candidate (and former president) Levon Ter-Petrossian plans to run for mayor of Yerevan (also see Eurasianet's story). The mayoral post in the capital city is important symbolically and substantively. Because Ter-Petrossian's presidential loss was accompanied by protests and violence, the May 31 showdown is likely to produce high drama.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Early Election in Kyrgyzstan

According to Eurasianet, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling on March 19 requiring an early presidential election. RFE/RL reports that the election will be held on July 23, 2009.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Consent and Dissent

UPDATE (3/26/09): While double-checking my referendum data, I discovered that the original data I downloaded was not correctly labeled. Most of the precinct results were shifted over one column, except for the results of Q29 which repeated the results of an earlier question. I am not sure if the error was mine or the CEC's, but I have updated the information I reported earlier.

Azerbaijan's referendum has received praise and criticism, and you may review some of these voices here, here, here, and here. The final turnout was 71.08%, and all 29 questions received at least 87% support nationally according to the CEC.

This post does not review general conclusions about the quality of the voting process, but rather focuses on some of the data coming from Azerbaijan's CEC. The CEC deserves credit for transparency in publishing precinct-level turnout data and results quickly and efficiently. Moreover, just as in the presidential election in October 2008, the CEC installed web cameras in many precincts which allowed anyone to watch the proceedings.[1]

I combined the turnout data with the electronically recorded results protocols for all precincts (as I noted earlier, some precincts report incomplete data). Let's take a deeper look at results for question 21, the question receiving the strongest support according to official results:

101-ci maddənin V hissəsi aşağıdakı redaksiyada verilsin: «V. Müharibə şəraitində hərbi əməliyyatların aparılması Azərbaycan Respublikası Prezidenti seçkilərinin keçirilməsini mümkün etmədikdə Azərbaycan Respublikası Prezidentinin səlahiyyət müddəti hərbi əməliyyatların sonunadək uzadılır. Bu barədə qərar seçkilərin (referendumun) keçirilməsini təmin edən dövlət orqanının müraciətinə əsasən Azərbaycan Respublikasının Konstitusiya Məhkəməsi tərəfindən qəbul edilir.»

In 153 247 precincts, the question received unanimous support from voters (accounting for 66,039 122,037 votes, or around 2% 4% of all votes cast on this question). Some of these precincts were small, with 27 recording under 100 votes from voters. But several were large; 11 29 included over 1,000 voters. As I noted in a previous post, unanimous results - especially in large precincts - are questionable. Even if there is little dissent on a ballot issue, voters and election officials are not perfect. Voters make mistakes and sometimes render their responses (or entire ballots) invalid. The CEC reports that 3.64% of votes on question 21 were invalid, lower than any other question (question 16 had 4.64% invalid; all other questions were over 5%).

Indeed, many voters cast invalid votes on the question. Invalid votes could reflect mistakes, or intentional efforts to show dissent without recording a no vote. In 4,521 4,297 precincts (out of 5,367 precincts), at least one ballot was invalid ("etibarsız") on question 21. In 1,052 418 precincts, 10% or more were recorded as invalid, accounting for 124,796 50,176 votes (or a bit more than 3.5% 1% of the vote based on precinct returns). No precincts recorded a majority of "no" votes on question 21. In only one precinct did the sum of "no" and invalid votes exceed 50%.

[1] While Internet video monitoring increases openness, it also could influence less sophisticated or older voters who may believe that their presence at the polls will be recorded (inducing them to turn out and vote). But, this is a subject for another post.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Some Thoughts on Turnout in Azerbaijan

The CEC's preliminary results show overwhelming support for all of the questions in the referendum. In October's presidential election, the main question did not surround the outcome, however, but rather turnout. While no minimum threshold threatened the outcome, observers thought that President Aliyev's partisans would ensure a strong turnout to show support. Turnout measures mobilization and is the primary issue for the referendum as well.

The graphic to the left shows a simple box plot of the precinct-level turnout data published by the CEC. The CEC posted turnout data from 5,367 precincts, although some precinct-level data are incomplete (e.g., TEC 29 has three precincts with no results reported). As a visual representation of simple descriptive statistics, the box plot does not provide rigorous analysis. However, it shows some interesting results and suggests that some cases might be outliers. The 50th percentile is represented by the line in the rectangle; the 25 and 75th percentiles by the upper and lower bounds of the box. Observations outside the "whiskers" are outlying cases worthy of further investigation.

At 10 a.m., two precincts reported over 75% turnout (TEC 96, PEC 45 and TEC 98 PEC 27). These precincts are small, and could be located in special precincts where turnout can be managed. Turnout management could be benign (i.e., hospital patients may be transported to the precinct and may vote early) or questionable. At the closing of the polls, 60 precincts reported 100% turnout. These precincts also report questionable results. In TEC 41, PECs 37 and 38 both had 1,500 registered voters and all registered voters reportedly cast ballots. According to the published protocols, all of the voters in both precincts cast affirmative ballots for each of the 29 questions on the ballot. While not impossible, these results are highly improbable. Indeed, one would expect that among 3,000 voters, at least one voter might have made an error on a ballot with 29 questions, invalidating it.

This commentary begs the question: what is the normal pace of turnout? In my earlier post, I suggested that 30% could be a "reasonable" upper bound for turnout figures at 10 a.m. The figure of 30% was purely hypothetical; my main point was that a reasonable upper bound at 10 a.m. is lower than a reasonable upper bound at 5 p.m. (while the lower bound could always, in principle, be zero). As the day progresses, increasing variance in turnout reports is not necessarily surprising. No research, to my knowledge, has identified a pace of turnout that conforms with free and fair practices. Indeed, the pace of turnout is likely to be affected by many factors: the perceived closeness of the race, the level of citizen interest, and if election day is on a work day or holiday, among other factors. A forthcoming article by Pacek, Pop-Eleches, and Tucker in the Journal of Politics shows that the perceived importance of an election can strongly affect turnout in post-communist societies (my own research concurs with their finding). The referendum was portrayed as important enough for citizens to be motivated to show regime support. Yet, the preliminary data also raise some red flags about manipulation. I will post additional analysis as I look more deeply at the data.

Voting Underway in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's CEC has reported 64.12% turnout at 5 p.m. The figures throughout the day show increasing variance in turnout levels at the territorial constituency level. This is not surprising as the upper bound for turnout increases as the day progresses (that is, a reasonable range for turnout at 10 a.m. might peak at 30%, but by mid-day the upper bound is higher.). The figure on the left shows turnout figures reported at each official time period and a regression line. The regression line puts final turnout around 85%, but the fit of a linear regression may not best represent the distribution. Turnout seems to be tapering off and may end up closer to 75%. The final turnout data should be reported at 7p.m. Azerbaijan time.

The CEC is also reporting precinct level data. In the district with the highest turnout at 10 a.m. (TEC 118), some precincts are reporting around 80% turnout at 5:00 p.m. I will look at the turnout data in more detail as the final results come in.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Election Eve

As the March 18 constitutional referendum quietly approaches, official bodies and news sites are covering the vote:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Democratic Constitutional Change?

Azerbaijan's Trend News reported that Michael Hancock, a British MP from the Liberal Democratic Party and a representative to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, supported the democratic credentials of the upcoming constitutional referendum, stating:

"If the nation wants to scrap limits on presidential terms, then this is democratic... I monitored the elections in Azerbaijan and they took place very normally... I do not blame the government, but rather the opposition in this case because they are not playing an active role in the elections. There were some problems during the elections in my country, as well." (Quotes from the March 6, 2009 Trend News article.)

The newly re-opened (for different treatments of the closure of see APA and Eurasianet) presented the comments in a slightly different manner, noting that Hancock called constitutional changes "normal and logical." Specifically, Hancock is quoted as stating:

«После распада Советского Союза в бывших союзных республиках были приняты новые Конституции, которые, несомненно, носили временный характер. Поэтому внесение изменений в эти законодательные акты нормально и логично» ["After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, new constitutions were ratified in the former Soviet republics that, undoubtedly, were temporary. Therefore, carrying out changes in these legislative acts is normal and logical."]

Azadliq has raised questions about the Western voices supporting the referendum. Without parsing every word that Hancock reportedly said, or possible reasons for his comments, it is worth assessing the issue of "democratic" constitutional change through referendums.

The requirements for changing constitutions vary cross-nationally; holding a national referendum is not unreasonable. In Hancock's own country, changes to the basic laws (the UK has no formal constitution) are within the purview of parliament. In other countries, constitutional changes must obtain legislative approval and pass another barrier (e.g., in the United States, barring a constitutional convention, national legislative approval (2/3 votes in both houses) is accompanied by approval in state legislatures (in 3/4 of states)). Azerbaijan's parliament approved the referendum, and it is scheduled to take place in ten days. In terms of formal institutional procedures, the process falls within democratic norms.

Hancock's comments about the opposition's failure to engage ignores important contextual issues. While Azerbaijan's opposition is fragmented and was disengaged from the last presidential election in October, past repression of protests undermines mobilization efforts (see the BBC documentary: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Opposition groups have challenged the referendum, but most referendums in the post-Soviet region (including those in Azerbaijan) tend to favor the sitting regime and tend to succeed.

Election day procedures in Azerbaijan may also appear to be normal. On election day in October, I observed a dozen polling sites in Baku and in most cases, the procedure was straightforward and orderly. However, government influence over the media, the dominant position of pro-government forces in electoral commissions and other critical choke points, and the lack of political diversity in formal political institutions renders the process suspect. Most of the problems with elections are not manifested on election day, but rather in the process that undermines competition long before ballots are cast.

The general principle of a legislature initiating a nationwide referendum for constitutional change falls within democratic norms. Codifying constitutions during the transition may confer a temporary character on them; it is not unreasonable to modify basic laws. But, for the constitutional change to be democratic, the institutions initiating change should be selected via free and fair processes, procedures should be open and transparent, and citizens (and political actors) should have access to alternate sources of information.

UPDATE (3/09/09): I neglected to note in yesterday's post that the Council of Europe has recommended a delay to the referendum. The CoE indicated that an upcoming Venice Commission report (due on March 13) will address questions about changes to local government authority. Some elements of the constitutional reform may contradict the European Charter for Local Self-Government.