The Challenges of Electoral Competition in an Oil Rich State: Azerbaijani Pre-Election Report

October 6, 2013

Continuing our series of Election Reports, the following is a pre-election report on Wednesday’s Azerbaijani elections from, Farid Guliyev, a PhD candidate in Political Science at Jacobs University Bremen and the list editor of the Azerbaijani Studies group, and Katy E. Pearce, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.

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Azerbaijanis will go the polls on Oct. 9 in an atmosphere marked by a general sense of fear combined with deep apathy. Although there were signs of discontent earlier this year with a riot in a provincial town  - as well as occasional unsanctioned opposition rallies in the capital Baku – these expressions of discontent with corruption and power abuse as well as grievances over rising material inequalities did not develop into a sustained popular mobilization movement. Most experts predict that the outcome of the upcoming vote is predetermined in favor of the incumbent president, Illham Aliyev, who has been in office for 10 years already. If elected, this will be his third term – a term made possible through a controversial 2009 constitutional amendment. What makes President Aliyev’s reelection an almost foregone conclusion is a reflection of the resources held by the current regime, the uncompetitive nature of the electoral process, and repression and intimidation used against regime critics.

Crowds at an Azerbaijani Election Rally (Photo: Mehman Huseynov\The Monkey Cage)
Crowds at an Azerbaijani Election Rally (Photo: Mehman Huseynov/The Monkey Cage)

Azerbaijan is one of the more authoritarian of the post-Soviet states. Like many post-Soviet states, corruption is rampant and permeates all levels of societal life. In 2012, Azerbaijan was ranked 139th most corrupt country in the world on par with Nigeria and Pakistan. It also has one of the most stable regimes in the region, perhaps the third most durable after Nazarbayev’s rule in Kazakhstan and the Niyazov-Berdymukhammedov regime in Turkmenistan, all of which, notably, maintain power through petro-resources.

Due in large part to the continuing oil boom, Azerbaijan has accumulated a great deal of wealth in the last decade. The government’s annual earnings from petroleum exports varied between $15 and $20 billion in recent years. The assets of the state oil fund are now $34 billion. The influx of petrodollars stimulated voracious and visible government expenditure in a short period of time. The ruling family greatly benefits from this wealth personally and politically, as it has created both a patronage system to maintain loyalty as well as given the regime the resources to easily preempt any opposition.

Provision of patronage is crucial because of the weak non-material sources of the regime’s political legitimation. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) lacks a strong non-personalist ideology or a comprehensive program but relies instead on a loose combination of nationalism and a personality cult created during the lifetime and proliferated after the death of the regime’s “founding father” Heydar Aliyev.

The opposition in Azerbaijan faces a number of challenges. Not the least of which is with almost no resources, they face a ruling regime with nearly infinite financial resources.  Beyond financial resources, the regime controls most means of collective action, and, importantly, the government has nearly total control of mainstream media, especially television and radio. Thus there are few formal ways for the opposition to share information with Azerbaijani citizens. Moreover, there has been a dramatic deterioration in freedom of expression in Azerbaijan since mid-2012 that has resulted in dozens of political activists and journalists being arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges. However, placing the blame for the opposition parties’ problems exclusively on resource inequalities would fail to adequately account for the internal problems and lack of capacity which also plague these organizations.

The previous presidential elections were held in 2008 and looked more like a plebiscite than a competition. According to official results, Aliyev received 88.7% of the vote. The other six candidates – of whom three are running again this time – gained below 3% of the vote. Of course, these figures do not take into account the extent of electoral malpractice that characterized all Azerbaijani elections after 1993 (also here) including ballot box stuffing, the “merry-go-round” method, or, perhaps more subtle, “uncoordinated” interference by government officials. The two largest opposition parties boycotted the 2008 election to protest the unfairness of the contest.

The pre-election situation

While the conditions are equally unfair toward opposition candidates this year (e.g. the campaign period was shortened from 28 to 23 days; opposition candidates have little access to national TV broadcasters; increased fines for participation in rallies etc.), the contest looks more vibrant than in 2008.

What makes this year’s elections different from previous ones?

First, opposition unity and a single candidate: a new opposition coalition called the National Council of Democratic Forces was created in June and united behind a single candidate. The new coalition brings together a broad spectrum of parties and figures and includes leaders of major opposition parties, civil society and youth activists, and prominent representatives of the intelligentsia. The National Council first chose an Oscar-winning screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov to be its candidate. After his candidacy had been barred by the Central Election Committee in August, the National Council nominated a backup candidate – professor of history and former MP Jamil Hasanli. Notably, past electoral coalitions did not last.

Second, social media plays a bigger role in information dissemination (between elites) from both sides. As we will discuss in greater detail in a follow up post, social media allows for the opposition to work around government control of media, but it also provides new and informal ways for the government and its supporters to suppress criticism.

Who is who?

In addition to the incumbent president, there are nine hopefuls competing for presidency including five current members of parliament. Most of the candidates are pro-regime and are largely supportive of the Aliyev administration. There are two candidates who are worth paying attention to. One is Igbal Agazade of the Umid (Hope) Party, who received 2.8% of the vote in 2008 has a platform of “don’t be afraid of change” and unresolved socio-economic problems that the current government has failed to address. The other is the candidate of the united opposition bloc, Jamil Hasanli, a professor and former MP. Hasanli focuses more directly on the head of state and the existing system of governance as a whole. Accusing Aliyev and his family members personally of corruption and the embezzlement of public funds worth billions of dollars (referring to real estate property in Dubai and possessions on British Virgin Islands), Hasanli demands that the president be held answerable to the public and that, if elected, he will put an end to this corruption-based system. When asked about his political program/party platform in one interview he replied that he considers exposing widespread corruption to be the best platform. According to coalition agreement, if elected, Hasanli will be a temporary leader presiding over a 2-year transitional period, which is designed to appease the leadership of the various opposition parties (see manifesto here).

This focus on existing corruption rather than presenting a party program or packages of policies is nothing new. This tactic may help mobilize some citizens that already lean toward the opposition, but combating the regime on non-ideological or non-policy-based grounds seems to be ineffective and in fact may be exactly what the regime wants because it has the effect of making opposition parties look distracted and disorganized, as well as not providing an actual plan for how they will behave differently from the current regime.

A third candidate, Ilgar Mammadov from the REAL (Republican Alternative) political movement, was arrested on fabricated charges in February this year and is currently held in pre-trial detention. The Central Election Committee denied registration of Mammadov’s candidacy. As a result, the REAL leaders announced that they are considering supporting the united candidate of the National Council.

REAL is an interesting addition to the Azerbaijani political scene. Founded in 2009, it directly addresses many of the weaknesses of the traditional opposition parties. Focusing on ideological and programmatic political change, this relatively young Western-leaning intellectual group has positioned itself in the center right of the political spectrum and advocates a parliamentary form of government, meritocratic state administration, and strong rule of law.

As for the incumbent, the ruling party announced that Aliyev is not running a campaign because “he does not need it”. Similarly, the president does not participate in presidential debates. He spends most of the campaign time touring the regions, cutting red ribbons, and making speeches in which he highlights achievements of the government in providing political stability and improving the wellbeing of people including the delivery of material goods and services, such as renovated roads, gas and water pipes. Additionally, in the past month, salary increases for public service sectors, which employ 10-18% of the population, have been announced on a nearly daily basis.

Another player worth mentioning is the First Lady. In late June, an unknown political party announced the plans to nominate the first lady Mehriban Aliyeva to compete along with her husband in the October elections, but the party later renounced the nomination. The First Lady is a figure with political ambitions, currently serves as a member of parliament, and her nomination was said to be linked to the strengthened position of her family group within the elite network.

What to expect

President Aliyev is likely to win by a big margin, subject to electoral manipulation. But a 95% win would be too obvious and thus risky. Look for another high 80s. Less than 80% would make it appear as if Aliyev is less popular than in the 2008 election when he received nearly 90%.

Another changing dynamic is that the protest electorate seems to be concentrated in economically less well-to-do regions and the younger Baku political elite while traditional opposition parties tend to concentrate their activities in the urban areas. While the opposition parties have learned on past mistakes and formed a united coalition with a single candidate, they failed to use the time between elections to enhance their work at grassroots level, to strengthen organizational capacities and to develop coherent party programs. They have so far been reluctant to promote younger cohorts to the positions of leadership within their organizations and still suffer from internal divisions.

The united opposition group, the National Council, will likely not survive past this election. On their own, the traditional opposition parties’ future remains uncertain, but do not expect them to disappear. There is a base of loyal support. And because much of the leadership has been around for decades, they do have some name recognition. Nonetheless, there is fatigue, as demonstrated by the founding of REAL. But not all younger oppositionally-minded Azerbaijanis are flocking to REAL. Certainly, some younger Azerbaijanis maintain allegiance to the traditional opposition groups out of respect to their elders: opposing the government is a family affair in Azerbaijan.

REAL’s growing popularity and strategic planning makes them a group to watch in the 2015 parliamentary election. If they can engage citizens beyond the urban elite remains to be seen, but before their leader was imprisoned the group was making some initial steps toward building their non-Baku base. However, without the institutional organizational strength and notoriety of the traditional parties, much needs to be done in a short period of time to make REAL a strong political player.

A previous version of this post incorrectly said the Azerbaijani election will take place on Tuesday. The election is Wednesday, Oct. 9. This version has been corrected.

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