Azerbaijan (and a U.S. PR firm) wants you to know its elections are fair

October 15, 2013
2013 Azerbaijani presidential election results (https://www.infocenter.gov.az/e-services/prezident2013.aspx?i=3)
2013 Azerbaijani presidential election results (https://www.infocenter.gov.az/e-services/prezident2013.aspx?i=3)

When I started the election reports series here at The Monkey Cage, my goal was to provide a source of informed analysis on elections occurring the world over. These reports are written by social scientist volunteers with detailed knowledge of the countries in which the elections occur, and are intended to serve as a bridge between the one-sentence quote from academics that are often found in journalists’ accounts of elections and the inevitable 1-2 year delay before peer-reviewed articles about the election appear in an academic journal.

It is thus with great excitement that today I announce a new feature of our election report series: the official government response.  This can be a new source of analysis for scholars and pundits alike: a chance to compare the government’s account of the election with our informed scholarly analysis. However, I must confess that this was not my idea.  Instead, I need to thank the Podesta Group, an “unrivaled team of Democratic and Republican government relations and public relations professionals based in Washington, DC” where clients are helped to “skillfully navigate the often treacherous Washington, DC, media landscape.” In this case, we can only assume that the the Podesta Group’s client is the Azerbaijani government, as a representative of the Podesta Group objected to our pre-election reports on the Azerbaijani presidential election (which, as you may recall from our new colleague Max Fisher’s post, subsequently involved the government releasing a set of election results before the election took place) and arranged for the “official government response” that we are featuring in this post.

For observers of international politics, this is an excellent chance to observe a real example of how U.S. public relations firms attempt to bolster the image of regimes like Azerbaijan — which is rated “not free” by Freedom House and ranked by Transparency International as more corrupt than 138 other countries (out of 174 that are ranked) —  and raises a number of important research questions.  To what types of media coverage do American PR firms representing these sorts of governments feel compelled to respond?  How do they respond? Note for example that the response below does not explicitly address any of the points raised in our two reports about the Azerbaijani election, but just generally defends the country’s electoral process.  And are these responses effective?  For example, upon reading below that an election in which the incumbent received 84.55 percent of the vote resulted from a set of processes that are “not the actions of a government trying to rig an election,” is anyone’s mind actually changed?  This in turn brings up another interesting question, which is just exactly whose opinion are they trying to influence? The treacherous Washington D.C. media? The U.S. public?  U.S. policymakers?  Do they have evidence that these sorts do media rebuttals work?  All of these strike me as interesting subjects for future research.

Anyway, without further ado, here is our first “official government response” as part of our election reports series from Mammad Talibov, counselor to the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States:

Imagine a country that has only been independent for 22 years after suffering communist rule for seven decades.

Azerbaijan is a critically important US ally in a strategic neighborhood – it is the only country in the world that borders both Russia and Iran.

Moreover, about a fifth of its internationally recognized territory is occupied by yet another neighbor, Armenia, and nearly a million of its citizens have been displaced as a result.

This week, Azerbaijan held its sixth presidential election since its independence in 1991. Some 5.1 million eligible voters had the opportunity to choose from a crowded field of candidates.

Thousands of observers, including 1,400 international delegates, monitored the elections. Notably, the EU and Council of Europe delegation, as well as numerous other monitors, described the voting process as open, transparent and well organized.

As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation declared, “Overall, around election day, we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process.” Former representative Michael McMahon, a New York Democrat, called the vote “honest, fair and efficient.” In a reminder that not even the world’s oldest democracy is perfect, he added, “There were much shorter lines than in America, and there were no hanging chads.”

Still, much of the U.S. media coverage, before and after the balloting, has been critical, as if this were a nation with peaceful neighbors and not a worry in the world.

Yes, Azerbaijan isn’t perfect. But it is heading in the right direction – toward democracy, free markets and the rule of law.

In 1918, the people of Azerbaijan established the first-ever democratic republic in the world with a predominantly Muslim population; today, it has an exemplary track record of inclusiveness and tolerance and is widely recognized for its efforts to ensure gender equality and sustain economic growth.

These are important fundamentals for any democratic system. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s political discourse is vibrant and open — this is precisely why televised debates and articles in the media feature criticism and disagreements. While these debates may provide good fodder for Azerbaijan’s critics, they also illustrate the pluralism of Azerbaijan’s political system.

Azerbaijan has more than 20 national and regional TV channels, dozens of cable and radio stations, and lively newspapers. Around 65 percent of the population has Internet access, and the government is investing $125 million in broadband. In fact, social media is widely used by all political groups in Azerbaijan.

These are not the actions of a government afraid of an informed citizenry.

Leading up to and during Wednesday’s election, Azerbaijan embraced openness, transparency and free expression. Nearly 100 media outlets covered the elections, and web cameras were installed at over 1,000 polling stations across the country. These are not the actions of a government trying to rig an election. Quite the opposite.

Please note as well that we will shortly have an Azerbaijani post-election report from the authors of the pre-election reports, which you will be able to find here or here.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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Joshua Tucker · October 15, 2013