Azerbaijan Prepares for Polls

Azerbaijan’s presidential election is set for tomorrow, and despite a newly invigorated but still fractured opposition, it appears that Ilham Aliyev will retain the presidency for another term.

Aliyev’s likely victory appears to stem from two critical issues: the economy and security. An independent poll of over 1,000 Azerbaijanis undertaken by American polling firm Arthur Finkelstein and Associates – whose work in the United States and Eastern Europe is well-established – shows Aliyev with an 86 percent approval rating among likely voters, a rating that increases to over 90 percent among those certain to vote.

The poll further shows that the ongoing conflict with Armenia and tensions with Iran have strengthened Aliyev’s hand. Armenia illegally occupies twenty percent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region, despite numerous United Nations resolutions and customary international law; and Iran’s sponsorship of terror has been a security concern for its northern neighbor for decades. Of the poll respondents, 87 percent approved of Aliyev’s actions to protect Azerbaijan from terrorism, and 82 percent approved of his handling of Armenia’s ongoing occupation of much of Azerbaijan.

In follow-up interviews, polling firm’s on-site directors noted that Aliyev’s overall approval rating and scores on those two issues improved even more in those provinces that border the occupied provinces and Iran. Azerbaijan’s status as a strategic crossroads and the dangers that come with it are not lost on Azerbaijanis.

The economy was another strength for Aliyev, as Baku’s growth and diversification plans have allowed the country to diversify away from petrochemical dependency and to grow domestic demand. Poll respondents also gave favorable marks to the country’s direction and Aliyev’s handling of the economy.

“There is a very real correlation between how voters view the President’s performance, the resolute support for him on a personal level, and the fact that the opposition has not put up a candidate that is able to excite the people,” the firm noted in its release announcing the poll results.

As is traditional in Azerbaijan, the opposition has been unable to coalesce around a single candidate. The largest opposition factions at first settled on a renowned playwright who is constitutionally unable to stand for office because he has dual Russian citizenship, before settling on an anodyne candidate without significant national name recognition (leading to a predictable rupture). In all, ten candidates will be standing for the presidency tomorrow, making Aliyev’s win more likely.

It is hard to stress the importance of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue throughout the country; the war with Armenia has left over 1 million internally displaced persons and has left a wound in the national psyche most Westerners cannot easily understand. That issue, and Aliyev’s handling of it, have solidified what was already incredibly strong support. The opposition’s inability to create daylight on the issue has merely made the contrast starker.

In an effort to show its pro-European tilt, Baku has also invited election observers from the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and from various observer missions composed of officials from across Europe. Polling firms, including Arthur J. Finkelstein, are planning exit polls in a first for this country, with AJF planning on surveying a full 15 percent of all voters, or roughly 60,000 interviews.

Aliyev’s win looks likely; but Azerbaijan is showing every sign of taking the democratic process seriously, promising transparency and an attention to process worthy of its European aspirations.

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