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Lotos Works to Improve Access to Recent Parliamentary Elections in Azerbaijan For Azeri Citizens With Disabilities

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue no. 27, December 2005-January 2006: www.disabilityworld.org

It is estimated that there are at least 250,000 persons with disabilities of voting age in Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea. Like other developing countries, people with disabilities in Azerbaijan comprise at least ten percent of the population, yet remain largely invisible to the decision- and policy-makers who design and implement government programs.

In early 2005, LOTOS, a coalition of disability organizations located in Baku, the capital, began exploring strategies with the World Institute on Disability to make the November Parliamentary elections more accessible to Azeri voters with disabilities. The Azeri disability community and the Central Election Commission (CEC) had already advanced electoral access in the 2003 election, when the CEC worked with the Azerbaijan Society of the Blind to develop and test a ballot guide enabling blind voters to cast an independent ballot. The CEC also implemented a "mobile voting" program, authorized by Azeri election law, which enables homebound voters to participate in elections.

As a result of LOTOS and WID discussions, International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) Senior Advisor for Human Rights, Jerome Mindes, traveled to Baku in July 2005 with financial support of World Learning/Azerbaijan and the USAID mission. Mr. Mindes met with leaders of disability and civil society organizations, the leadership of the Central Election Commission, representatives of USAID, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and international democracy NGOs to assess the capacity of the electoral environment. His report provided specific recommendations for making electoral and political processes in Azerbaijan more accessible to citizens with disabilities, and found that the Azeri Election Law presents no insurmountable barriers to the full participation in elections by citizens with disabilities. The climate for at least modest advances in electoral access and participation of Azeri's with disabilities for the November 2005 elections was positive and possible.

However, LOTOS did their own informal research and discovered that, in addition to addressing physical access to elections and ballots, the reality of engaging disabled Azeri voters in the election process was more complicated. LOTOS found that disabled Azeri's, especially women, were ashamed to leave their houses, and many physically disabled people could not leave their houses to vote even if the polling places were accessible. Furthermore, many Azeri's with disabilities did not have access to information about the candidates and felt that candidates don't ever address disability issues that matter to them, so they asked why they should go to all the trouble of voting anyway. The inaccessibility of most polling places may perhaps be Azerbaijan's smallest problem in engaging its disabled citizens in the democratic process.

In order to address the multitude of barriers facing Azeri voters with disabilities, LOTOS and WID proposed an ambitious project to increase the participation of individuals with disabilities in the November 2005 parliament elections through a voter education/voter registration drive in three pilot regions, and an election observation effort by citizens with disabilities and to strengthen the capacity of all of the disability organizations of LOTOS to participate fully in the electoral process by adapting an approach to citizen participation in elections that has been tested in over a dozen nations.

LOTOS would train the Central Election Commission, their regional staff and the poll workers at the polling sites to understand how to implement accessible elections for persons with disabilities and how to facilitate disabled people voting, including disability etiquette and the basic right of disabled people to vote. They would train disability leaders and members of all disability groups to understand their rights and procedures for the elections, and train journalists and public media staff (radio and TV) to promote public awareness and support for people with disabilities to participate in the elections.

LOTOS would also build ramps at key polling sites and would work with the national media to hold a candidates forum.

Unfortunately, in the few months available to prepare for and complete this work before the parliamentary elections, USAID was unable to provide additional financial assistance to fully implement the training activities and build access to the polling stations. However, LOTOS conducted two training sessions on disability awareness and disability etiquette for the polling station workers and workers of CEC, built ramps into two secondary schools in Baku that were polling stations, informed people with mobility disabilities living in the district about the two accessible polling places, and recommended scenarios for public service announcements to IFES and the CEC.

The CEC also took some steps to accommodate people with visual impairments by printing the ballots in Braille but, unfortunately, although recommendations were made, the election process remained largely inaccessible to Azerbaijan's deaf citizens, who were educated in schools using the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and could not read the election ballots that now use the Latin alphabet!

Looking towards the presidential elections in 2007, LOTOS hopes there will be ample time to implement the activities originally proposed for the 2005 elections. LOTOS plans to enlist the support of international funders and civil society NGOs, so that Azeri's with disabilities become engaged in the political process and may fully participate in all future elections.

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