Azerbaijan post-election report and what comes next

October 15, 2013

[Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports, the following is a post-election report on last week's Azerbaijani elections from Farid Guliyev, a Ph.D 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.  Guliyev and Pearce's pre-election reports can be found here and here; a response to those reports from Mammad Talibov, counselor at the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Washington, is available here.]


The results

Azerbaijan held its presidential election on Oct. 9. As predicted by most experts and country observers (here and here), the incumbent president Ilham Aliyev has been reelected for a third five-year term. According to official results, Aliyev received 84.55 percent of the votes (4 percent less than in 2008, but 8 percent more than in 2003). The united opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli received the second most votes, with 5.53 percent. Interestingly, five of the other candidates received fewer votes than the minimum number of signatures required for candidate registration. Hasanli refused to accept the election results and the legitimacy of the vote. The official turnout was 72.31 percent (which is very close to the 2008 figure – 75.6 percent).  The Oct. 9 election, according to the OSCE observer mission, “was undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates” while the vote counting was marred by serious irregularities. The deteriorating quality of elections is a clear pattern. Freedom House’s measures of electoral process show worsening of the electoral institutions and process in Azerbaijan.

Elections under authoritarianism

Azerbaijan is an electoral autocracy  — the type of regime in which “regular elections are held for national legislatures and chief executives, yet they fail to live up to democratic standards of freedom and fairness.” In electoral authoritarian regimes, elections can play different roles depending on context, the power structure of the existing regime, and timing. As the wave of color revolutions demonstrated, multiparty elections under authoritarianism can sometimes become focal points for real contest, threatening authoritarian stability and promoting democratization. This becomes more likely when at least one of the following conditions exists: first, when prior to the polls, economic crisis or free-market reforms diminish the state’s ability to distribute patronage and weakens the incumbent’s powers to emasculate the opposition. Quite to the contrary in Azerbaijan, the favorable international energy market in the past decade has allowed the regime to reap economic benefits, provide goods and services which have trickled down to the population (per capita income rose from $900 in 2003 to $8,000 this year even though urban-rural inequalities persist — for example, about 30-35 percent of the rural population lived below the poverty line in 2011 — and thus, improved economic conditions have quieted some potential dissent and strengthened the incumbent’s supremacy. The slow pace of economic liberalization, close alliance between political leadership and business people tied to the regime, and the dominant role of state-controlled oil industry in the economy have all hindered the role of private sector in Azerbaijan. Second, elections can threaten regime stability when a looming leadership succession crisis (or a lame duck situation which arises when the incumbent leader has to transfer power to a successor due to illness, death, fallen popularity or final term in office) alters the incentives of the elite to continue to support the president, prompting some former elite members to desert the regime and join a more promising rival elite group or the opposition. President Aliyev took measures in 2009 to avoid the future lame duck situation. Finally, oil wealth gives the leader in power incumbency advantages over the opposition and resources to garner support. Elections in post-communist states with oil are shown to have autocracy-stabilizing effects.

Both of these conditions were notably absent on the eve of Azerbaijan’s October elections, and thus, anticipation for an opposition win in the election was rather premature.

While in the situations described above, elections can sometimes undermine regime stability, electoral contests held under normal circumstances typically serve to enhance regime resilience by providing a veneer of popular legitimacy and more importantly as informational signaling and elite management tools. According to Gandhi and Przeworski, the reason authoritarian leaders hold elections is “to intimidate any potential opposition. Elections are intended to show that the dictatorship can make the dog perform tricks, that it can intimidate a substantial part of the population, so that any opposition is futile.” Geddes argues that elections are used by dictators to manage intra-regime conflicts, and Lust shows that elections can stabilize a dictator’s grip on power as “a venue to co-opt opposition, to deter defection from the ruling coalition, and efficiently distribute patronage and access to state resources” (also see here). Specifically addressing the informational signaling function, the large margin by which Aliyev won sends a message to both elites and the masses that he is firmly in control. In this sense, elections serve the function of spectacles, to use Birch’s analogy. But elite management is more important for Aliyev, as the biggest threat to his rule comes from coordinated action from within the elite. Aliyev has firmly told the elite that he has “unconditional support of the population,” as one official commented on the president’s reelection. Hastily organized presidential victory celebrations before the official results were announced also illustrate this point. Such impression management seems to be important for perpetuating the idea that the president is popular and that there are no alternatives to Aliyev.

Reported manipulations

The question of falsifications and manipulations often arises in post-Soviet elections, and for all of the reasons detailed above, in some of the more authoritarian post-Soviet states, manipulations can ensure a win.

There is a great deal of evidence that the use of administrative resources and manipulation (which were carried over from the Soviet past and adapted to post-Soviet country-specific circumstances) did take place in this week’s election in Azerbaijan. Media reports and especially social media reports from observers were readily spread via social networks. Also, the report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights claimed manipulations such as merry-go-round voting and ballot-box stuffing (ballot-box stuffing was reported in 37 polling stations and counting was assessed negatively in 58 percent of the polling stations observed) took place, which is consistent with past elections in Azerbaijan. Of particular interest is that the OSCE monitoring mission issued a critical preliminary report noting the lack of level playing field for all candidates. Moreover, it is alleged that a mobile phone app introduced by the Central Election Commission (CEC) to allow users to follow vote counting on election day “leaked” the final election results a day before the voting started. The local monitoring group echoed these findings. And the U.S. government, UK government, and the European Union all made critical statements about the conduct during the election. (Although notably, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly did not find any manipulations.)

Some Azerbaijani pundits suggest that electoral fraud was unprecedentedly high — in the words of one opposition politician: this was “the dirtiest elections in the history of Azerbaijan.” These pundits suggest that because the real turnout was very low (below 40 percent), the CEC had to employ a full range of ballot rigging techniques to get a high enough number of votes (above 80 percent).

Additional evidence comes from political scientist Fredrik M Sjoberg, who tweeted his “digit test” analysis which showed irregularities in the officially reported results. Briefly, it demonstrates that a human may have written what they think is a random number of votes, rather than genuinely counting the votes. For example, Candidate X would get a vote count of 123 in one polling station, and 234 in another. Under a clean vote count one would expect that the votes would end in the digit 0 10 percent of the time, the digit 1 10 percent of the time, the digit 2 10 percent of the time, and so on (the blue line in the graph). In this election, note how much more frequently Aliyev’s vote count ended in the digit 0. One could imagine a human writing down a number like 350/400 votes for Aliyev, rather than the random number of votes (like 337) that would happen naturally.

Azerbaijan district level results by last digit (Fredrik Sjoberg:
Azerbaijan district level results by last digit (Fredrik Sjoberg:

What’s new and interesting about this year’s election results?

While it is difficult to determine if there were in fact more manipulations this year compared to previous elections, it is possible that the efforts put forth were to help Aliyev legitimize his controversial third term. From a legal point of view, one lawyer has argued, the removal of the term restrictions could not be done retroactively.

Another interesting development this year was the unification of opposition parties into a pre-election coalition that perhaps helped run a relatively more active campaign but did not yield the expected success in terms of more effectively challenging the regime. Apart from the structural conditions of economic crisis/stability and the rentier structure of the Azerbaijani economy (the latter putting the opposition in the disadvantaged position), a number of other factors help explain why the pre-election coalition did not work in Azerbaijan this time: the electoral field is too tightly controlled by the regime with too many obstacles for oppositionists to compete for offices. Another important factor is the weakness of political parties (focused on personalities over party platforms) constituting the coalition and the overall weakness of intermediary institutions such as labor unions, civic associations, local communities. Finally, there is not sufficient use of innovations in forming strategies to confront the regime. This was especially apparent during televised debates in which, for example, participants, including the opposition National Council-nominated candidate Jamil Hasanli, were making some promises hinging on the kind of populism employed by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In fact, in authoritarian states, some scholars have argued that the opposition can only win elections if they adopt novel and sophisticated electoral strategies to make themselves more effective and popular (Bunce & Wolchik).

The role of social media in this election, as we noted in our pre-election reports, was mostly for keeping eyes on the ground and reporting. Opposition-minded Azerbaijani social media was abuzz all day with reports of election violations; photographs of ballots were also popular. At the same time, pro-government social media users also posted ballot and voting photographs and as early reporting as well as exit polls came in, early celebratory activities took place both online and offline. Twitter was a battlefield of hashtag dominance between opposition and pro-government force.

Aliyev’s third term — What’s next?

The electoral process is only one possible arena for contesting and advancing democracy, but the opportunity for mounting a serious challenge in this electoral domain depends, as we discussed, on the presence of other conditions. In the specific case of Azerbaijan, the structural economic factors are at present not favorable for elections to have a real pro-democratic effect. But this may be changing. The regime’s strongest vulnerability is poor economic performance, which to a large extent depends on the dynamics of oil production and swings in the international oil prices. The government has shielded itself against  supply shocks by creating an oil fund. However, with declining oil revenue and the poor development of alternative non-oil sectors, Aliyev, if he intends to stay in power, is going to need to make hard choices about what to do next. Diversification will be an imperative for survival, but its actual implementation could be a threat to the regime, as opening up the economy to non-state actors may strengthen the autonomy and power of societal groups that fall outside the scope of the regime’s patronage circles.

In conclusion, first, the potential for opposition contest during election cycles depends on the economic situation and the incumbent’s control of state resources and the expectation of a power transfer. While the former is a structural constraint, the latter is possible to act upon by advocating, perhaps more vigorously, the re-introduction of the restrictions on the presidency and the enforcement of other institutional checks. Given the present conditions in Azerbaijan, elections serve the president by helping him look strong and popular, which in turn helps with managing elites. Second, the Azerbaijani opposition suffers from being too personality-driven (although certainly this is common in post-Soviet opposition parties). Moreover, in order to be successful, opposition parties need to be organizationally solid and ideologically appealing. One way to do this could be to build more soft power through educational and social programs. The opposition parties could also benefit from a more sophisticated social media strategy. While some individuals and groups use social media as a space for information dissemination and deliberation, those who are most successful in building support and sometimes acting collectively are not the opposition parties themselves. Rather opposition-minded individuals unaffiliated with parties seem to have had the largest reach and power on social media and the greatest successes with transforming online deliberation into both online and offline action. Because personalized action frames that are individually driven work quite well through social media, connective action can occur. Indeed, one no longer needs a party affiliation to have his or her voice heard in Azerbaijani politics. If the traditional opposition parties are somehow able to leverage the affordances of connective action in combination with the assets of their existing organizational structures, they could possibly reach entirely new constituencies. However, as dissent becomes more creative, including using social media, the law of coercive responsiveness may come into play.

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Andrew Gelman · October 15, 2013