Wednesday, 16 October 2013

App-Gate and Azerbaijan's Presidential Election

Published in Field Reports

By Bakhtiyar Aslanov (the 16/10/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On October 8, a scandal erupted over the new IOS and Android application that Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) planned to launch for voters to follow the presidential election vote count on their mobile phones on Election Day, October 9.

Meydan TV published a screenshot of the application showing the outcome of the election in the 58th election constituency Hacigabul-Kurdamir under the caption “Initial Results of Elections.” The results awarded 72.76 percent (11337 votes) for incumbent President Ilham Aliyev, 7.4 percent (1153 votes) for the single opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli, and 5.24 percent (817 votes) for Gudrat Hasanguliyev. The application also contained information regarding the election process, such as the turnout relative to the names of the polling constituencies and the time different votes were cast. Hebib Muntezir, a local blogger, argues that “the Central Election Commission obviously forgot to activate ‘This section is currently closed’ button,” which resulted in an early release of the election results.

A few hours later, the developer of the application, Vusal Isayev, was identified. Muntezir, the Social Media Manager of Meydan TV, shared a screenshot of his online dialogue with Isayev, who introduced himself as the application’s developer and requested that the news be removed from Meydan TV’s web page. On his Linkedin profile, Isayev states his profession as the managing director of the Happy Baku LLC digital marketing company, which developed the app for the CEC. Isayev claims that it was just a test version of the app and that it contained outdated information.

Meydan TV reports that Isayev has since deactivated his Facebook and Linkedin profiles, prompting Meydan TV’s director Emin Milli to ask, “If he is so confident that this was just a testing mistake, then why has he deleted all of his accounts?”

The CEC’s spokesperson Azer Sariyev told RFE/RL that the new app was posted on the CEC’s website at 7 am on Wednesday, October 9. He accused Meydan TV of staging a provocation and “seeking to cast a shadow over our democratic elections.” Later during the day, the CEC issued a statement of apology, expressing “deep regrets” about the incident and calling it a “misunderstanding.”

On October 14, the Central Election Commission made a statement similar to that of Happy Baku LLC’s explanation, posted on the company’s webpage: “Our company implemented interim tests on one election constituency (Hajigabul-Kurdamir Con.EC # 58) for a certain period of time on October 8, 2013 to ensure the accurate, effective and purposeful usage of the software. After the work was successfully completed, we forgot to inform the users that we were testing the software.” The real names of the candidates running in the presidential elections the next day were added to the software developed by Apple. Commenting on votes, Happy Baku LLC notes that it used “statistical data on previous elections and different surveys held during these presidential elections for ensuring the success of the test.” The company expressed regret that it caused a misunderstanding among the users and provided those seeking to question the legitimacy of the election with another argument.

The National Council of major opposition parties and their supporters argue that the app scandal reaffirmed that the CEC has decided to declare Aliyev president without considering the real results of the election. For this reason, they stressed their distrust of the accuracy and legitimacy of the final results of the election to be announced by the CEC.

Indeed, this “AppGate Election Scandal” by Meydan TV motivated several western newspapers to cover Azerbaijan’s 2013 presidential election in their top news. Western news outlets have mainly focused on the legitimacy of the election result by suggesting that the final result announced by the CEC was already predetermined. 

However, western news outlets have been accused of failing to conduct thorough fact-checking in their zeal to find a “gotcha” moment in Azerbaijan. In a detailed article, the Internet news portal The Eurasian accuses Max Fisher, the author a Washington Post article named “Oops: Azerbaijan released election results before voting had even started” of diffusing inaccurate information about the election in Azerbaijan. The Eurasian states that “the screenshot clearly says that the results are for ‘district 58, Haciqabul-Kur...’ but Mr. Fisher fails to mention it and, quite the opposite, tries to lead his readers to the conclusion that it [refers to the] overall outcome.” Furthermore, the article notes that the information on the number of precincts and voters in the screenshot do not correspond to the precinct’s real numbers, suggesting it was indeed a dummy. 

After the exit poll results indicating Aliyev’s victory with 83 percent of the votes became public, BBC World News broadcast a brief interview with Murad Gassanly of the Azerbaijani National Council of Democratic Forces and Polad Mamedov, a representative of the incumbent government. Gassanly termed the release of the app information an “indication that vote rigging was pre-planned.” In response, Mamedov said, “as in previous elections, if there are cases and strong evidence showing that there have been irregularities in the election, I am sure that they will be investigated by the CEC.” 

The CEC proclaimed Aliyev’s victory in this year’s election by 84.55 percent of the votes. The only candidate in opposition to Aliyev, the candidate of the National Council of Democratic Forces, Hasanli, received only 5.53 percent. 

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