Azerbaijan’s Elections Shaping Up As Reminder to West About Nagorno-Karabakh

Prominent American pollster Arthur Finkelstein and Associates continues to bring cutting-edge polling techniques to Azerbaijan, this time in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for November. In an on-the-ground, cross-sectional, face-to-face poll of 1,000 voters across all regions of Azerbaijan (except the twenty percent of the country illegally occupied by Armenia), the pollster found that the leading issue was that same occupation.

[The poll] focuses on a wide range of issues affecting the nation’s 5.1 million voters. Asked “are things moving in the right direction or the wrong direction?” 77.1 percent said “right direction,” while only 14.7 percent said the wrong direction.

Of the most important issues facing voters, just 7.2 percent in this resource-rich nation said the economy, but 41.3 percent chose Nagorno-Karabakh, which – along with seven surrounding territories – continues to be occupied by Armenia in defiance of international resolutions calling for an immediate withdrawal.

“Five times more respondents named Nagorno-Karabakh as the most important issue facing the nation than the economy,” said George Birnbaum, Executive Director of Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates.

“It remains a highly emotive issue that pervades all aspects of politics and government in ways many observers in the West simply don’t understand.”

President Ilham Aliyev rode his strong handling of this issue and the country’s consistently strong economic performance to a commanding victory two years ago, after pre-election polling showed supermajority approval for his performance in office. His party, which controls a majority of seats in parliament, appears poised for a similar victory this time.

The lesson of this poll is not merely one of a popular incumbent party facing an election with the wind at its back; it is instead a reminder of the terrible importance Azerbaijanis place on the fact that a fifth of their country is occupied; that a million men, women, and children have been displaced from their homes for over twenty years; and that the motivations that inspire electoral returns in other countries pale next to being under constant siege from a Russian ally sitting in, and not merely at, one’s front door.

Unsurprisingly, poll respondents gave high marks to the government for its handling of the situation, which has brought Armenia’s illegal acts to the attention of international fora that would have otherwise ignored them. The same poll found that the New Azerbaijan Party’s candidates receive 74.4 percent of the support of decided voters, with another 14 percent undecided. Given that undecided voters tend to break their support between incumbents and challengers, this means New Azerbaijan can expect greater than eighty percent support in the elections, which will likely cement their majority.

“It is easy to conclude from our poll that voters want more of the same,” said Birnbaum, whose company correctly forecast the result of the 2013 election.

“They want political and economic stability; they want to be kept safe from terror; and they want their elected representatives to keep fighting for the return of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The effect Nagorno-Karabakh will have on the elections stands in stark contrast to its place in the Western imagination. News stories from prominent media outlets have focused very little on the frozen conflict; and for decades, the West’s approach has been to hope the whole matter goes away on its own with the passage of time, despite innumerable resolutions and demands for Armenia to end its aggression by international bodies from the United Nations down.

The issue has not receded from Azerbaijan’s collective consciousness any more than an open wound on a human body would. Next month, Azerbaijan votes; and its heart and head will be in a storied province, stolen but not yet lost.

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