Adventure In Baku: Exit-Polling Azerbaijan
A Public Opinion Pros Special Report
In June of 2005, the two of us were approached by a representative of Renaissance Associates to do an exit poll for the Azerbaijan parliamentary elections in November. We soon learned that the two previous elections in Azerbaijan since the breakup of the Soviet Union were widely believed to have been fraudulent. For this election, transparency and international acceptance of the results were the announced goal of the Azeri government. From the highest levels, it was made clear that exit polls would be part of the process to ensure the appearance of free and fair elections. In a decree issued May 11, 2005, President Ilham Aliyev ordered election officials to facilitate the “process of exit poll[ing] that will be carried out by public experts, [and] not to interfere in an illegal manner in course of that process.”
During our initial visit to Azerbaijan in July we were assured that our reputations for honest results were what our sponsors wanted. Well, that’s what they got. We are just not sure anymore that they really meant what they said.
Recent elections in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan resulted in regime change as a consequence of corrupt vote counts that exit polling helped to challenge.
In last year’s Ukrainian election for president, neither the ruling party’s candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, nor his chief opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, achieved the required majority in the first round of voting. Yanukovych first claimed he had won, but then backed off after a protest.
In the run-off, Yanukovych, who had been publicly endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, again claimed victory in the official vote count, but U.S. and E.U. observers reported many signs of fraud. Exit polls sponsored by western groups pointed to Yushchenko’s having won. Our own analysis of those exit polls shows their results were not quite conclusive, but that is another story. In any event, that election was set aside by the country’s highest court after a massive and prolonged uprising in the streets of the capital, Kiev. Ultimately, the run-off election was re-run, and Yushchenko won the presidency.
Similarly, in 2003, President Eduard Shevardnadze’s party in Georgia, after an official count of the parliamentary election named it the winner, was ousted by a rebellion in the streets of Tiblisi after two out of three exit poll showed the opposition on top. For good measure, angry mobs stormed the presidential palace and drove Shevardnadze himself out of office.
The events in Ukraine and Georgia definitely had an influence on the sponsorship of exit polls in Azerbaijan for its Milli Mejlis, or parliamentary, elections on November 6, 2005. In the end, there were three exit polls for this small country. The Agency for International Development (USAID), which is an arm of the U.S. State Department, sponsored an exit poll in 65 of the 125 districts. PA Consulting Group of Madison, Wisconsin, was the lead organization. There was another exit poll by an Estonia firm, Saar Poll, sponsored ostensibly by the Center for Regional Development in Azerbaijan. We believe the same people who sponsored our exit poll also were involved with the Saar Poll. At the time, it made no sense to us why our clients would want two exit polls, but the reason became clear following the election.
And then there was our exit poll, conducted by Mitofsky International, Edison Media Research, and CESSI, Ltd. Edison/Mitofsky did the 2004 exit polls for U.S. news media, and CESSI, a Moscow firm, has worked with Mitofsky on all the Russian exit polls since 1993. We thought we were the only exit poll covering all 125 districts, but the Saar Poll claims it did as well.