Election preview: Azerbaijan

Voters in Azerbaijan go to the polls tomorrow (Wednesday) in a presidential election that sees incumbent president Ilham Aliyev seeking a third five-year term – which he will undoubtedly win.

The first thing to be said is that Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Muslim state in the Caucasus closely aligned to Turkey, is not a democracy. When I last wrote about the subject it appeared that things were “at least moving in the right direction,” but over the last eight years Aliyev, who succeeded his father as president in 2003, has comprehensively tightened his control.

The trappings of electoral democracy in Azerbaijan are still in place. There is an opposition candidate: distinguished historian Camil Hasanli, who represents a coalition including the two main opposition parties, Musavat and the Azerbaijan Popular Front, which both boycotted the 2008 election. But no-one suggests he has a serious chance of winning.

Aliyev won in 2008 with 87.3% of the vote against six largely nominal opponents, none of whom managed more than 3%. (The leader among them, Igbal Aghazade, is running again this time.) Observers condemned the election as failing to meet basic standards of fairness, although a European monitoring team did note that “the voting day can be generally viewed positively and described as marking considerable progress.”

It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that Azerbaijani oil and gas supplies are of major importance to the EU, particularly as an alternative to dependence on Russia.

Matters deteriorated further in 2010, when the two main opposition parties were eliminated from parliament and Aliyev’s party won 72 of the 125 seats, with most of the rest going to sympathetic independents. Al-Jazeera reported on that occasion that “Azerbaijan’s opposition has accused Western countries of tempering criticism of human rights abuses in order to protect their strategic interests in the country.”

As in many authoritarian states, the problem is not the actual procedures on election day but rather the systematic unfairness produced by government domination of the media, a lack of independent civic institutions and an overall climate of intimidation.

Having said that, there are obviously much worse authoritarians than Aliyev around. He is no Bashar al-Assad. The fact that an opposition is allowed to function, after a fashion, holds out the hope that peaceful change may eventually be possible. A strong showing tomorrow by Professor Hasanli would be a good start.

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