Elections Azeri Style!

One could almost be forgiven for not realising that Azerbaijan has just had a presidential election. Yes, the BBC has run an article on it and the news of the vote has made it into Western media, whereas elections in Belarus often fail to do, but it was a brief report in forming readers of an election victory of the incumbent.

Really there was very little real alternative. The vote was always going to return one candidate to the position of the presidency. Ilham Aliyev who has held the position since ‘winning’ an election in 2003 to take over from his father retuned to the presidency with an entirely plausible 89.7% of the vote, with his nearly opponent having received a mere 5.6% (only 80% of votes have so far been counted, so results may differ later).

The most interesting event in this otherwise choreographed election facade, was that the central electoral commission published on its app, the day before the election was due to begin, the results of the election. This made the election a joke and rather destroyed Aliyev’s claims that Azerbaijan is becoming more democratic under his rule. Another problem was that the opposition candidate, Jamil Hasanli, in a written protest to the central election commission that access to media was denied him, but Aliyev gained inordinate media coverage. His protest was rejected on the grounds that the constitution stipulates equal access to media coverage and he needed to work harder to gain access.

This was not the only flaw or isolated incident in the whole process. The regime created ‘opposition’ parties to run against the actual opposition coalition as a means to split the vote. 5 MPs also ran against Aliyev. The Azerbaijani Mili Majilas (parliament) is composed of 125 seats with 73 controlled by outright by the hegemonic party’s (New Azerbaijan Party) candidates and the rest split between loyal independents and systemic regime sponsored opposition. These 5 MPs thus served as another opportunity to split the vote. As has been remarked on, the media was almost sycophantic in its acclamation of Aliyev, giving exclusive coverage to a campaign where the person running for president did not even bother to canvass for votes. The media was his campaign. On top of this the police dispersed any protests and security services monitored internet, phone and radio traffic of known opposition members. Quite clearly these were as Aliyev admitted truly democratic elections. I mean to say these events recounted here appear in all of the world’s democracies.

The democracy that Aliyev speaks of is not democracy as the West envisages it. In fact his rhetoric of democracy is not actually democracy. It is a mixture of Marxism-Leninsim, caudillismo and nationalism ensconced in a democratic garb. Knowing that international organisations expect that a regime at least claims to be democratic Aliyev, like other autocrats espouses this democratic mantra. Whilst creating a political system and civil society organisation that are subservient to his will. His talk of democracy is similar to other regional democrats, like Putin, Lukashenka, Nazarbayev and Karimov who mean the word democracy to be synonymous with stability. This is what democracy means in the former Soviet Union region.

The saddest part is that the regime does not need to worry about Western furore over this electoral fraud. The Western response will be muted because of course Azerbaijan has tremendous reserves of oil and gas and serves as a conduit for other natural resources from Central Asia. It is one of the routes that takes out Russia from the equation and thus one that the EU values as strategically important. In the volatile region that is the Caucasus a Western ally is a valued prize and Aliyev fits that bill too with aplomb. Therefore, yes the West will note with sadness yet more electoral fraud, manipulation and voter intimidation, but the response will be muted on these issues with a higher propensity to praise Azerbaijan’s path as an ally and the importance that Aliyev signifies in this. The ‘land of fire’ was the first Muslim state to hold democratic election and universal enfranchisement. Sadly the present regime is building a monarchical tradition, where elections are heavily circumscribed and this discourse that could serve as a beacon to the Caucasus and beyond has been snuffed out.

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Categories: International politics, Opinion


I am a political scientist. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg. My research is on authoritarian regimes, especially in the post-Soviet space. Thank you for reading the blog, I hope you enjoy...

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