Azerbaijan held its fifth presidential election on Wednesday, an election the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament described in a joint statement as “free, fair and transparent.” This is an historic day for Azerbaijan, which is demonstrating that its maturity as a democracy and a part of Europe’s future is more advanced than many had previously realized.
Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev received a comfortable 84.6 percent of the vote, a strong endorsement of his handling of the economy and the security threats Azerbaijan faces. (His nearest competitor, Jamil Hasanli, led the other losing candidates with 5.44 percent of the vote.) But while important, there is another story brewing in this Caspian nation: a democratic emergence.
Azerbaijan’s democratic development has been on display since before the election, when American polling firm Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates conducted the country’s first major pre-election poll of 1,000 Azerbaijanis, and published the results well ahead of the elections. The poll showed Aliyev with an 86 percent approval rating among likely voters, a rating that increased to over 90 percent among those certain to vote.
AJF then followed up with the largest exit polling in the nation’s history, forecasting a total of 83.7 percent for Aliyev an hour after the polls closed. The exit poll was the result of 60,000 face-to-face interviews at over 835 polling stations across the country (or roughly 15 percent of the total), and represented the first truly significant effort to quantify Azerbaijan’s voting patterns during an election in progress. The firm has also promised to do post-election follow-up, allowing a breakdown of voters by every normal Western method — a stark bid to demonstrate Western standards of which Azerbaijanis are understandably proud.
By itself, the close convergence between Aliyev’s vote total and the exit poll projection (and for that matter, his approval rating) would be mere coincidence. But Azerbaijan has gone to great lengths to show Europe and the world that it takes seriously its duties to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections for its citizens, to demonstrate that the process of the election is every bit as important as the result.
Though not its first step, its first immediately apparent step was openness. By some counts, upward of 50,000 election observers swarmed across the country in the months before the election, interviewing locals, watching the election season, and observing the vote itself. Representatives from numerous European bodies, the Commonwealth of Independent States, multinational organizations from elsewhere in the world, civil society groups, and assorted NGOs provided manpower and keenly peering eyes.
The monitors overwhelmingly agree: The elections were a success for the people of Azerbaijan as much as for their president.
The most prominent of these observers joined together to give a single statement commending Azerbaijan on its election performance. PACE, of which Azerbaijan has been a member for a decade, has had a mission on the ground for over a month; the European Parliament is working with Azerbaijan in advance of Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November in which closer ties between Baku and Brussels will be on the table. Both groups have a keen interest in gauging Azerbaijan’s democratic development.
While not without some reservations, the two missions’ joint statement praised Azerbaijan’s handling of the election on several fronts:
- A “free, fair and transparent electoral process”;
- Election procedures carried out in a professional and peaceful way,” with praise for “the sound technical preparations and the investment made by the Azeri authorities for this election”;
- No evidence of voter intimidation or even a police presence at the polls;
- “A more open electoral debate” than in past elections, with a call for more expansive debates in the future;
- A “window of opportunity” for the several opposition candidates, again with a call for future development; and
- Baku’s decision to open its elections to numerous “national and international observers.”
This is a proud moment for Azerbaijan, who hopes to show that its enormous economic development has matched its political growth: European norms for a European economy. Sadly, this revolution does not appear to be in danger of spreading to its bitter foe.
Armenia, which currently illegally occupies the Nagorno-Karabakh region and other, surrounding Azerbaijani provinces, has unfortunately if predictably cast its lot with Russia. Its elections, which are traditionally marred by vote rigging, riot suppression, and the inevitable ascension of pre-picked candidates, are an unfortunate throwback to its Soviet past and Russian-led Customs Union future.
Azerbaijan has chosen a European future, and has earned its moment in the sun.
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