azerbaijan

People protest #Besdir (Enough) Jamil Hasanlis official slogan. Photo: Jahangir Youssouf

Election “Everybody knows who will win”. Presidential election in Azerbaijan

On October 9 presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan. As a result of the criticized 2009 amendment to the constitution the two-term limit for the presidency was removedand the incumbent, President Ilham Aliyev, could stand as candidate fora third time. Nobody was surprised when he won again.

Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 24, 2013

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On October 9 presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan. As a result of the criticized 2009 amendment to the constitution the two-term limit for the presidency was removedand the incumbent, President IlhamAliyev, could stand as candidate fora third time. Nobody was surprised when he won again. To the contrary it seemed the well-documented ‘political apathy’ of the Azerbaijani people had spread outside the country as well as.All through the election period foreign and national analysts alike were very careful to point out that everybody already knew who would win. This caution is of course a natural reactiontothe electoral authoritarianism that characterizes the Azerbaijani regime. Under electoral authoritarianism the state provides an ”illusion of multi-party democracy at the local and national levels while effectively stripping elections of efficacy. The result known in advance, elections can be held frequently”. Nevertheless,such an approach to the election is not only depressing; it also tends to relegate the efforts of the often very harshly critiqued democratic opposition in Azerbaijan. This time a coalition, the National Council for Democratic Forces (Milli Şura), managed to nominate one mutual candidate to represent the ‘oppositionists’, something that is basically unprecedented in this context. Sure, their efforts could be seen as too little too late and IlhamAliyev still won a landslide victory getting 85% of the votes. Nevertheless, short of a color revolution, the determination of the opposition forces did contribute to making this election as exciting as it getsunder electoral authoritarianism.

National Council of Democratic Forces

During the 20 years the Aliyev family has held power in Azerbaijan the two major opposition parties, Musavat and People’s Front Party, have faced continuous official constraints and growing national and international disrepute. They have been described as disorganized, fractured, disillusioned, weak and more focused on the promotion of leaders than specific ideologies. Their inability to cooperate was a fatal blow in the 2003 presidential election where they could not present one single candidate to challenge IlhamAliyev. However, in the last five years or so a new generation of activists have manifested themselves in the civil society sphere, sometimes explained as a result of ‘young, Internet-savvy, and Western-educated’ Azerbaijanis who have been studying abroad returning home. Some are affiliated to pro-democracy youth movements and others are individuals without formal organization, but who can be seen as part of a connective action network opposing the government using mainly the Internet. Gradually these activists have become the most vocal opposition in the country. In the lead-up to the election some of these young activists were voicing criticism of the tactics and perspectives of the traditional opposition parties and therefore it was seen as progress when the National Council for Democratic Forces in June launchedthe idea of a joint candidate to represent the overall democratic opposition. The National Council consists of twenty opposition parties, representatives of a number of youth organizations, religious groups and leaders, academics and human rights activists among others. If elected their candidate was to leave his post after two years, after which new free and fair elections would be held. After an initial intermezzo JamilHasanli, renowned historian at the Academy of Sciences,a Cold War history expert, was presented as the candidate and accepted by the Central Election Commission.

One group chose not to participate in the National Council even though they share the same hope for political change. The Republican Alternative (ReAL), a relatively new political movement,has been among the loudest criticsof the old-school opposition parties. ReALnominated its own presidential candidate,IlgarMammadov,but his candidacy was rejected by the Central Election Commissionon claims that part of the signatures he submitted wereforged. Many analysts believe thisdevelopment helped strengthen the opposition’s position asMammadov, who is currently in prison accused of organizing riots earlier this year,charges that most think are politically motivated, following rejection urged his potential voters to vote for the National Council’s candidate.

The reception of Hasanli’s candidacy can be described as lukewarm at first.Gradually it seems many of those who hope for change took a liking to him and considered him a worthy candidate. His active campaigning via both Twitter and Facebook certainly helped to strengthen his profile among the ‘Internet generation’ and his fearless outspokenness in the chaotic televised presidential debatesprobably impressed too.Moreover, the credibility of the National Council as a political actor might have been strengthened by the fact that they did not attempt any unsanctioned rallies but rather played along and held their public meetings in remote places allocated by the authorities. Still, despite all this the opposition did never have a chance.

What made the election so predictable?

One of the indications that this election was going to be as uninteresting as the earlier was when the incumbent made it known, just as in the previous election,he did not see the need to conduct an election campaign.Instead his continuous efforts to improve people’s situation in the last ten years should ”speak for themself.” These efforts were clearly intensified this spring when wages for virtually all categories of government employees, including military personnel, as well as pensions, student stipends and welfare support was increased by 10-15 percent on presidential orders.

Given that the president’s statements and activities already predominate both TV and the press in Azerbaijan the decision to skip the campaign is quite understandable. The six hours broadcast per week on state media that the candidates were provided, during the only 21 days long campaigning period,could not really have made him any more visible to the people. It would however have forced him to participate in the rather tumultuous televised presidential debates. The fact that he did not, but instead had a representative from his party read a statement on his behalf, probably saved his face to some extent as he could then be seen as ‘above’ all the yelling and accusations.Interestingly enough much of the holleringin the studio was done by other candidates to ‘defend’the president from the evil words of the opposition candidate. Besides Aliyev and Hasanli there were eight other candidates. A majority of them ran on platforms very similar to the presidents (if any) and are generally considered ‘fake’ competition.This was fairly clearly illustrated by the first presidential debate. AfterHasanli managed get a few words in about corruption during the Aliyev regime things even got physical as Hafiz Hadjijev, leader of YeniMusavat Party (not to be confused with the traditional opposition party Musavat), decided yelling was not enough and tried to silence the outspoken opposition candidate by throwing a full water bottle at him!

This debacle proved with depressing clarity how difficult it is to try to pursue political opposition in a country where ideological hegemony rules.The glorification of the politics and political ideology initiated by Aliyev Senior infuses the entire society, both on and off the political arena, in a very metaphorical yet tangible way. As political pluralism is unwanted those promoting political change are seen, and often publically referred to, as troublemakersthat need to be obstructed.
Although IlhamAliyev personally did not run any campaign there were a whole range of public figures, such as the Chairman of the Caucasus Muslim Board, a large number of MPs and even other presidential candidates (such as Hafiz mentioned above) who did not miss a chance to publically express the incumbent president’s magnificence and,in some cases, the need to vote for him. In the same spirit the pro-government National Youth Council launched the campaign ”My President”intenselymarketed to young people through social media.

The ideological hegemony has some very hands-on sides to it as well. The political situation has deteriorated. While earlier the traditional opposition parties were always given at least symbolic representation they have after the 2010 parliamentary election no seats in the legislature. The opportunities for political opposition parties, as well as anyone else questioning the political status quo, to publically express their views have also been decreasing. In the end of 2012 the government adopted new legislationthat dramatically increased the fines for organizing and participating in so-called unsanctioned rallies. Besides the financial punishments the rough treatment of protesters during a number of protests that took place in the spring of 2013 has shown the authorities will not accept any gathering that in their view could threaten the political status quo. A large number of democracy activists, opposition politicians, journalists and human rights advocates are still detained or imprisoned on questionable grounds. Among these are a large number of members of youth organizations andNIDA has been hit particularly hard with seven of their associates, many board members,still under arrest.Initially accused of drugs- and weapons possession the charges against them have been altered to include ‘attempt to start violent protests’.This means they could face up to twelve years in prison.

Freedom of the press is in a poor state as well. All TV and radio channels are directly or indirectly controlled by the regime. Legal restrictions make it difficultfor independent newspapers and journalists to obtain the permits and funding needed for work. More and more often critical journalists face informal pressures as well being threatened, physically assaulted, arrested for various charges or kidnapped. Given the limitations on other channels of communicationthe Internet has become an important forum for political activism. At the same timethe government is becoming increasingly aware of the rising Internet activism and is trying to find ways to restrict its impact. Moreover, so far the translationof online dissent to large-scale ‘offline’ action seems unlikely. For now the major force of democracy activism is limited to a part of the relatively small elite group of Azerbaijanis that actually are online.

As if the odds for the opposition candidate were not bad enough there is also election fraud.No free and fair elections have been held in Azerbaijan since independence (with the 1992 election where the Popular Front came to power as a possible exception) and this one was not different. If anything it might have been more fraudulent. One did not know whether to laugh or cry when Meydan TV,an independent television channel broadcasting via satellite/internet from Germany, the day before the electionbroke the news that the mobile phone application launched by the Central Election Commissionto allow users to track election results was already showing that IlhamAliyevas the winner with 72.76 percent of the vote. The results were quickly removed and the official response was they were part of a test but the damage was done. ‘Appgate’set the tone for an election that OSCE/ODHIR monitorsdeclared “seriously flawed”.Ballot-box stuffing, so-called carousel votingin which voters cast ballots at multiple polling stations, suspectballot counting, intimidation or even physical attacks on independent observers are just some of the violations documented. It is possible the number of abuses was not higher than before, but the ease with which they weredocumented and spread via social media has provided them with a lot more exposure.

To end on a more positive note, even though Aliyev’s victory wasnot in any way unexpected the election still provide food for thought. The merging of ‘old’ and ‘new’ opposition figures, with religious activists added to the mix as well, generated a dynamic that has largely been absent during previous elections and in Azerbaijani politics at large. The National Council has indicated theelectionwas only the beginning of their political ambitions. Additionallythe coalition indicates that the generational shift in the democratic movement that has so far been visible in terms of more strident discourses and changing tactics might, in time, be formalized on the political arena. This might be just the revitalization that the Azerbaijani democratic movement needs to survive and prosper.

references

1. Tlemcani, Rachid; Electoral Authoritarianism, Al Ahram Weekly, May 29 2007. Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2007/05/29/electoral-authoritarianism/25wc. For a discussion about Azerbaijan and electoral authoritarianism see for example: Guliyev, Farid and Pearce, Katy,The Challenges of Electoral Competition in an Oil Rich State: Azerbaijani Pre-Election Report, Washington Post, October 6 2013.Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2013/10/06/the-challenges-of-electoral-competition-in-an-oil-rich-state-azerbaijani-pre-election-report/
2. RahmanBadalov and Niyazi Mehdi, The Political Institutions of Azerbaijan: a Dichotomy between Text and Reality. In ArminehArakelian and GhiaNodia, eds, Constitutional/Political Reform Process in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Political Elite and Voices of the People. Tbilisi: International IDEA and CIPDD. 2013.
3. Pearce, Katy,Networked Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan: How the Azerbaijani Government uses the Internet to deter dissent. Seattle, Herbert J. Ellison Memorial Lecture Series University of Washington.May 2013. Available at: http://www.livestream.com/uwcomm/video?clipId=pla_d1121edf-8850-4391-890f-bb1a68eb67a1&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb
4. Manifesto and Founders of the National Council of Democratic Forces.Available at http://blog.razinurullayev.com/?p=1236.
5. See for example: Wages to Increase in Azerbaijan from September, Azernews, 22 September 2013. Available at: http://www.azernews.az/azerbaijan/58439.html
6. Televised Azerbaijani Presidential Debate Descends into Chaos, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 19 2013. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/azerbaijan-election-debate-attack-television-president-hasanli/25111775.html
7. MənimPrezidentim/My PresidentFacebook Page. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/mypresident.az
8. Andrea Briedé, Azerbaijan: is the opposition gaining ground?, Risk Advisory 26 April 2013
9. Hajili, Rashid, Freedom of Media in Azerbaijan. In Adam Hug, ed. Spotlight on Azerbaijan. London: The Foreign Policy Centre. 2013. Available at: fpc.org.uk/fsblob/1462.pdf‎
10. Pearce, Katy E. Information and Communication Technology in Azerbaijan. In Adam Hug, ed, Spotlight on Azerbaijan. London: The Foreign Policy Centre. 2013.Available at: fpc.org.uk/fsblob/1462.pdf‎
11. Vincent, Rebecca, Azerbaijan’s ‘Appgate’. Al Jazeera, 14 October 2013. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/10/azerbaijan-appgate-2013101314326460795.html
12. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), International Election Observation Mission, Republic of Azerbaijan - Presidential Elections October 9 2013.
Preliminary Statement of Findings and Conclusions. Available at: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/106901

  • by Sofie Bedford

    PhD in Political Science from Stockholm University. Researcher at Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University (UCRS) and affiliated with the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. Her main focus is the concept of "opposition" in electoral authoritarian states.

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    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se