Azerbaijan Heads to the Polls [UPDATED]

It is election day in Azerbaijan, where voters are set to vote in each of the 125 parliamentary constituencies. Midway through the voting day, despite an overcast, windy, and unseasonably cold day, voters are moving swiftly and smoothly through polling locations, a testament to both the voters braving the inclement weather and the election officials who have kept the system transparent and well-maintained.

Interviews with voters exiting the polls confirmed the earlier findings of a pre-election survey — findings on which George Birnbaum, the Executive Director of Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates elaborated in a pre-election interview. “Security and the economy are the key issues,” he said, although “economic security mattered less to respondents than security,” because Azerbaijanis “feel safe, but recognize that the security situation could get worse.” As in Israel, he noted, “voters tend to support those who keep them safe.” He added that the data showed that across all demographics, Azerbaijanis “believe the country is headed in the right direction, but they’re worried about the regional security environment.”

Those voter interviews show that voters are broadly happy with the direction of the country, even those casting votes for opposition or unaligned candidates. Marat, a 21 year-old university student, felt that things were improving in the country and believes that the country is headed in the right direction. Asked if he preferred a future with Europe or Russia — the existential choice increasingly facing all of the former Soviet Union these days — he unhesitatingly said Europe, because it is “more developed, more free,” words he chose to describe Azerbaijan as well.

However, he was unsure Europe wants Azerbaijan: “I’m not so sure [they want Azerbaijan in their sphere],” he said. “They always discriminate against us.” Given the thrust of European actions and dialogue toward Baku over the last few years, this is a sad, but predictable, response.

Other voters were as upbeat on the country, and more on Europe. Azzu, a 46 year-old teacher, said that the economy, security, education, and medical care are the important issues facing the country, with all headed in the right direction. She spoke glowingly of a pro-European future, and noted that Azerbaijan’s “political and economic situation, compared to others [in the region], is good.” Of some note, she does not feel threatened by Russia’s foreign policy, a belief largely echoed in other voter interviews. Lala, a 41 year-old teacher, was solidly in favor of a closer future with Europe; when asked if she was concerned about Russia and other threats, noted that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has made his country “hopeful” of the future, including the resolution of numerous security threats — which she believed he will solve “without violence.”

Adlyev, 37, identified security as the main priority facing Azerbaijan in these elections. Security, he said, “provides peace and stability,” and he credits this to the President and his party, which currently holds a majority in Parliament. As with other voters, he was positive on closer ties with Europe; however, unlike some other voters interviewed, he was not critical of Europe’s dialogue with Azerbaijan. “I think Europe is trying to teach us how to be,” he said.

A review of polling places shows that the Central Election Committee is taking every precaution against electoral fraud. Ballot boxes are sealed in multiple spots; teams of randomly-chosen citizens serves as observers, to certify that the boxes are not disturbed; and there is a constant video surveillance of each ballot box and the polling areas (above, and therefore not able to view, the actual polling booths), which is in turn available over the internet in real time. Voters have their fingers painted with a black-light-visible dye once they receive their ballots, and no voters are admitted without a black-light scan of their hands.

Updates will continue throughout the day.

[UPDATE] At an evening press conference, Birnbaum discussed the results of the exit polls performed by Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates: Based on their data, the New Azerbaijan Party took 75% of the vote. Of the 125 constituencies, the exit polls suggest that the NAP will hold 65 of the 118 seats for which exit data was available. Of the remaining 53, roughly 27 would go to independent candidates either registered with the NAP or who have spoken positively of NAP in the past. The remaining roughly 25 would see approximately six seats taken by the opposition, with the remainder taken by genuine independents.

[UPDATE 2] A mission of American observers, composed of former Congressmen, reported on their findings this evening. The reported “unobstructed and unfettered” access to every polling station to which they asked access; that they had found the election officials at every polling station to be “professional … it was clear that they respected the [electoral] process”; and they found “no meaningful irregularities” that would have interfered with voting or the results.