Election Azerbaijan’s Mysterious Snap Presidential Election

The proposition that a Presidential Election was held early because it was simply better to ‘get it out of the way’ in order to be able to focus on time consuming other events might appear far-fetched in other contexts. When considering the history of elections in Azerbaijan it appears to make sense. In fact, it is almost more puzzling why elections are held at all – when everybody knows who will win. But, in difference to the predictable result, the rumors and speculations preceding the election are intriguing and do tell us a lot about what is going on in Azerbaijan.

Published on balticworlds.com on April 12, 2018

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Presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan on Wednesday, 11 April 2018 – more than six months earlier than stipulated by election law. On the one hand this was no surprise. Snap elections were predicted after President Aliyev secured the right to decree early elections in September 2016, as the result of a controversial constitutional referendum. On the other it appears nobody expected the presidential decree on 5 February, setting the date for the election as early as April, at this point in time. This change of date left candidates with just over a month to prepare for the election campaign and prevented long-term election observation missions. Still it is not likely to have altered the election’s outcome in any way. As usual in Azerbaijani elections there was never any doubt the incumbent would yet again win. This was his fourth executive victory and he received some 86 percent of the votes. This prolongs his presidency until 2025 at which time he will have spent a mindboggling 22 years on the job. Even though the result was conventional, and in that sense even a bit boring, the decree did set in motion a wide range of interesting speculations about the reasons for the need to urgently hold this election. True or not these rumors provide a useful overview of, and a good point of departure for, a discussion about socio-political issues on the agenda in today’s Azerbaijan.

Financial Crisis and Destabilization

One frequently heard rumor was that putting forward the election was related to the economic difficulties the country is facing. Azerbaijan’s economy is one of the most oil dependent in the world,[1] and as such has since 2014 been hard hit by falling oil prices. In 2015 the Azerbaijani manat was devaluated twice and lost most of its value, but using the state oil fund reserves the authorities have so far managed to avoid a more severe financial collapse. It has been suggested that if necessary reforms are not implemented the continuous economic downfall might undermine the informal social contract between the rulers and the population. This relates, for example, to education, health care and social policy as well as regulations of the labor market and private business sectors. If people are not finding their needs in this regard being met it may increase the risk of social unrest. In fact, in the past years small scale popular protests, previously largely absent in this authoritarian context, have occurred in various parts of the country but these have so far failed to translate into larger collective criticism of the political status quo.[2] It is believed in the light of this the current rulers were afraid of something unpredictable happening before October. Hence it was better to hold the elections early in order not to risk possible destabilizing effects, which might complicate the incumbent’s reelection. Specifically there have been reoccurring speculations about a planned third devaluation, which is highly likely to cause a backlash among the population.

The Usual Suspects: Russia and Armenia

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is undoubtedly the most present issue in the Azerbaijani political and societal debate thus it is no surprise it features also in the election gossip. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted in 1991 and remains unresolved. Armenia to this day occupies not only the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave at the heart of the dispute but a number of adjacent regions – about 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory in all. The 1994 ceasefire have frequently been violated and as late as in April 2016 these violations escalated. What is now often referred to the four-day war resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries and added new grievances to the already infected relationship with Armenia. One suggestion was that holding the Presidential Election early could be related to the fact that the authorities in Baku was planning some ‘deal’ that involved larger concessions to the Armenians than the population would agree too. It should be mentioned this was in fact not a very flagrant rumor. It is nonetheless interesting in the sense it (just as most of the other rumors as well) hints to a certain distrust of the ruling elite among the population. Because of the lacking governmental transparency and the perceived benevolence the people cannot completely exclude that a deal would be made that benefit the leaders rather than the country at large. More prevalent were however theories related to ‘external forces’ wishing to obstruct Azerbaijani politics, in general quite common in this context. For obvious reasons both Armenia and Russia are mentioned in this regard. The fact that the Armenian military is backed up by its ally Russia is seen as one important factor sustaining the conflict. Still, Russia’s role in the conflict is ambiguous. It has been known to sell weapons to both sides at the same time as being the main mediator (as co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group) and it is generally believed Russia is actively working to keep the conflict unresolved. An unstable South Caucasus, it is suspected, strengthens Russia’s international position as potential regional peacekeeper. According to the rumors as Azerbaijani elections were held early both Armenia and Russia were too busy to interfere given that they had their own elections to worry about in April and March respectively.[3]

The fear of Russian meddling in particular in Azerbaijani domestic politics relates to events in 2013 when well-known Oscar winning screenwriter, Rustam Ibragimbekov, was put forward as the opposition’s single candidate in the Presidential Election. In the end he was not able to run for office, technically as a result of his dual Russian-Azerbaijani citizenship and practically because he feared being arrested upon coming back into the country. Ibragimbekov is generally considered as a respected member of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, but is a part of the ethnic Azeri diaspora in Russia. In this case his candidacy was perceived by the Azerbaijani authorities as an attempt by this specific group to impact politics in Azerbaijan to serve the interest of Russia.

Keeping it in the Family

Ever since the current president succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev, on the post in 2003 it has been popular to refer to Azerbaijan as a dynasty.[4] When on February 22 2016 President Aliyev appointed his wife, Merhiban Aliyeva, Vice President this obviously strengthened the idea that politics in Azerbaijan is a ‘family affair’.[5] The two vice-presidential posts (one still remains unoccupied) were established as a result of the 2016 referendum that changed the constitution for the third time since 1995. That Aliyeva would be assigned one of them was highly anticipated. Other gossip at the time proposed the referendum’s abolishment of the minimum age for presidential candidates, as well the lowering of the age for election to the legislature from 25 to 18, were to pave the way for the presidential couple’s 19-year-old son, Heydar, into politics. So far this did not prove true, but is, some insist, still in the cards for the next Presidential Election in 2025.[6]

In relation to this Presidential election two slightly inexplicit rumors related to the ‘Azerbaijani family dynasty’ circulated. First, it was suggested holding the elections early could possibly have been the result of some sort of struggle in the highest levels of power.[7] In recent years many observers have noted a change in the clan based Azerbaijani political structure. The influence of the Pashayevs, the clan to which the President’s wife belongs, have been growing –seemingly on the expense of the grouping that have been dominant since the rule of Heydar Aliyev (the current presidents father) – described as a coalition between the Nakhchivani and the Yerevani (Armenistani) clans.[8] This development has allegedly led to tensions and intra-government cleavages and the appointment of the first lady as Vice President has been described as an outcome of this.[9] To this end, one version of the rumor mentioned above seemed to point to the election being held early in order to prevent Aliyeva from preparing her candidacy. It is in fact not the first time her participation has been discussed. In 2013 the pro-governmental Democratic Azerbaijan World Party nominated her, but then quickly withdraw the nomination when it did not seem to be endorsed by the family.[10] It nonetheless rendered quite a lot of attention and even allegedly some support among the population at large, especially females. This leads to a second version of this rumor that held it for possible that the election was to be held early to quickly announce her candidacy and get her elected without too much fuzz. In consideration there is no doubt that electing a female president would greatly benefit the Azerbaijani authorities attempts to promote their country internationally as a liberal and tolerant Muslim state. If she actually wants to become president is of course still not known.

Another related rumor speaks of the possibility of the early election being brought on by the President suffering from an unknown fatal illness hence the need to ‘settle everything’ before something happens. After the last constitutional change in 2016, mentioned above, the rule in the country will be transferred to the first vice president (directly appointed by the president) in the event of the president becoming unable to fulfill his duties, instead of to the prime minister (who needs to be approved by parliament) as was the case previously. Although all the ‘family related’ rumors are elusive in character this is perhaps most so. Moreover it highly resembles the conspiracy theories about ‘concealed fatal illness’ surrounding the death of the former Azerbaijani president, Heydar Aliyev, as well as other long ruling post-Soviet authoritarian heads of states and even many Soviet party leaders.[11]

Protecting Political Status Quo

One of the more persistent rumors proposes snap elections were prompted by the possible release of Ilgar Mammadov, head of the Republican Alternative Movement (REAL) from prison. Accused of organizing riots and resisting police in connection with unrest in the city of Ismayili in January 2013 Mammadov was jailed in February the same year. Despite not even having been present in Ismayili until the violence was over he was sentenced to seven years in 2014. The general understanding is his arrest related to his plan to run for president in the 2013 elections. At that time there were some expectations that REAL, trying hard to position itself as something ‘new’ – not formally involved with the ill reputed  ‘traditional opposition,’ could be a force to shake the political status quo of Azerbaijan featuring the Aliyev family, first father then son, as rulers of the country since 1992. Even though the belief in REAL’s capacity has since largely faded, Mammadov’s imprisonment appears to have made his personal political position stronger. In a recent article Thomas de Waal described him as Azerbaijan’s “best known political prisoner” and even suggests:

“The problem Mammadov poses for President Aliev is analogous to the one that Alexei Navalny (a different sort of personality but of similar standing) poses for Vladimir Putin: he represents a credible alternative to the status quo”.[12]

Council of Europe’s persistence to get Mammadov released appears to underline his significance and also makes him an increasing annoyance for the Azerbaijani government. In October 2017 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, in an unprecedented move, formally stated it is considering legal action against Azerbaijan as a result of the non- implementation of the 2014 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights. The ruling concludes his arrest and extended detention violate several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and that he should be released unconditionally.[13] When on December 7 2017 Novrus Mammadov, the Azerbaijani presidential aide on foreign affairs, publically opened for Ilgar Mammadov’s release “under certain circumstances” it was seen as a sign of the authorities considering complying with the verdict.[14] Thus, had to hold the presidential election before – in order not to risk him as candidate.

It is still, for many reasons, highly unlikely Mammadov would win. As a result of the current regime’s physical and ideological control political and social alternatives are not only hard to voice publically, but come across to most as unrealistic and unnecessary. The seven candidates ‘challenging’ the incumbent in this election were not seen as credible by anyone. Instead they are perceived as actors in ‘an election game’ (some of them performing this role in every election[15]), frankly just as any candidate put forward by the two traditional oppositional actors, e.g. the National Council of Democratic Forces (primarily consisting of the Popular Front) and the Musavat Party would have been had they not decided to boycott the election. The fact that this continuous ‘game’ featuring ‘elections’ ‘for the sake of elections’ and participation by ‘opposition’ ‘for the sake of opposition’ is understood by the large majority as little but a show is well illustrated by various online activities. On example is the activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev who invented a mock campaign in support of one of the most infamous puppet candidates Hafiz Hajiyev featuring the slogan “Make Azerbaijan Great Again.”[16]

Others, like the NGO ‘Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center’ have found various ways to highlight the ‘fake’ candidates’ lack of credibility. They did for example publish a summary the frequency of the other candidates public praise of their alleged opponent – the incumbent – during the television debates:

While these efforts are amusing they also illustrate a more serious issue. The fact that both elections and politics have become seen as redundant and uninteresting makes the position of the current leaders more stable. If politics does not matter changing the government becomes a non-matter and the authoritarian system is safe for the duration.[17] If Mammadov had been able to pursue his candidacy it is at least plausible it could have been perceived as credible. This might in turn have at least disrupted the vicious cycle of the election game.

Avoiding Scheduling Conflicts

Interestingly, the presidential decree offered no actual reason for moving the election date. Later however various state officials suggested the elections needed to be held early not to interfere with other national and international activities scheduled for the rest of the year.[18] This explanation should be understood in the context of developments during the past years. In order to boost the worldwide reputation of its country the authorities have made considerable efforts to position Azerbaijan, and specifically the capital Baku, as the perfect hub for international mega-events. Although Baku’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games turned out unsuccessful there have been, and will be, a number of other occasions to show off Baku’s new spectacular urban development to an international audience.[19] The first ever ‘European Games’ were held in 2015 followed by the Islamic Solidarity Games (2017). In 2016 Baku began hosting a Formula 1 car race on an annual basis and some of the soccer games during the Euro 2020 semifinal are scheduled to take place in Baku. As for 2018, besides the Formula 1 race and some other international events like Baku Humanitarian Forum, the government has announced large-scale celebrations are planned in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (ADR) ,[20] that only lasted two years before being overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1920 but in many ways left behind an important legacy. Importantly, among other things, it provided Azerbaijan with the opportunity to promote itself today as the first Muslim democratic republic.

The proposition that a Presidential Election was held early because it was simply better to ‘get it out of the way’ in order to be able to focus on time consuming other events might appear far-fetched in other contexts. When considering the history of elections in Azerbaijan it appears to make sense. In fact, it is almost more puzzling why elections are held at all – when everybody knows who will win. Finally, one Azerbaijani MP suggested yet another justification for changed election dates. He argued this was necessary since otherwise – as a result of the presidential term being extended from five to seven years after the 2016 referendum – the next presidential election would coincidence with the parliamentary in 2025.[21] Even though this is by far the least spectacular explanation it does come across as likely. Nonetheless, only one thing is certain – we will never know for sure why the election was held early. But, in difference to the predictable result, the rumors and speculations preceding the election are intriguing and do tell us a lot about what is going on in Azerbaijan.


[1] Ahmadov, I. 2016. “Azerbaijan’s New Macroeconomic Reality: How to Adapt to Low Oil Prices” Caucasus Analytical Digest 83: 2-5.

[2] Guliyev, F. 2016. “Azerbaijan: Low Oil Prices and Their Social Impact.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 83: 16-21.

[3] https://eurasianet.org/s/azerbaijan-calls-snap-presidential-elections; https://jamestown.org/program/perfect-timing-azerbaijan-calls-snap-presidential-elections/

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/ec158937-cbe9-3b8a-a9af-dfabe5b4f4bd

[5] https://globalvoices.org/2017/02/21/government-in-azerbaijan-its-a-family-affair/


[7] https://eadaily.com/en/news/2018/02/06/snap-election-in-azerbaijan-fighting-elite-russias-factor-and-economy

[8] Kopeček, V. 2016. “How To Capture A State? The Case of Azerbaijan.” Political Sciences/Politické Vedy 19.2

[9] https://eurasianet.org/s/azerbaijans-new-vice-presidents-and-its-house-of-clans; https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/politics/21945/

[10] https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-nomination-president–aliyeva/25027699.html

[11] https://www.rferl.org/a/karimov-death-other-dictators-mystery-deception-/27964175.html

[12] http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/75406

[13] https://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/news-2017/-/asset_publisher/StEVosr24HJ2/content/ilgar-mammadov-case-council-of-europe-notifies-azerbaijan-of-intention-to-launch-unprecedented-legal-action?desktop=true

[14] https://jam-news.net/?p=74991

[15] https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/politics/27959/

[16] https://eurasianet.org/s/for-many-azerbaijani-voters-the-only-choice-is-to-laugh

[17] Bedford, S. “The Election Game:” Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus, Democratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 25 (4) 2017: 381-406.

[18] https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Areas/Azerbaijan/What-s-behind-Azerbaijan-s-snap-elections-186093

[19] Koch, N. and A.Valiyev. 2015. “Urban Boosterism in Closed Contexts: Spectacular Urbanization and Second-tier mega-events in three Caspian Capitals.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 56.5: 575-598.

[20] https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/2857423.html; https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Areas/Azerbaijan/What-s-behind-Azerbaijan-s-snap-elections-186093

[21] https://www.azernews.az/nation/126751.html

  • by Sofie Bedford

    An Associate Professor in Political Science and an Affiliated Researcher at IRES Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University. Her PhD project was conducted at Baltic and East European Graduate School (BEEGS) at Södertörn University and focused on processes of Islamic revivalism and community mobilization in Azerbaijan. She has since continued her research on religious, political and civic activism, especially in the Azerbaijani context but also in comparison to other authoritarian states, Belarus in particular.

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    Baltic Worlds Election Coverage online is commenting on the elections taking place in the region.. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se