Azerbaijan’s Well-Oiled Election Sham
By: Katherin Machalek, Guest Blogger
The presidential election in Azerbaijan on October 9 was contorted by rigging, fraud, and other irregularities that blocked any chance for a rotation of power. But it revealed almost nothing new about the former Soviet republic’s hollowed-out governance institutions, as the lack of genuine democracy was well documented before the election. More remarkable is the international community’s mild response to this electoral sham—a disheartening testament to the West’s prioritization of strategic and economic relationships with the oil-rich Caspian Sea state over the protection of human rights and democratic values.
Official tallies have credited incumbent president Ilham Aliyev with about 84.6 percent of the vote. The remainder was divided among several pseudo-opponents, some of whom openly supported the president, and one real challenger, historian and former lawmaker Jamil Hasanli, who represented an unusually unified collection of authentic opposition parties.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported instances of carousel voting, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) detected numerous electoral irregularities, including the lack of a level playing field, voter intimidation, unfair restrictions on campaigning, and attacks on the media. ODIHR’s assessment found clear indications of ballot-box stuffing at 37 polling stations and violations in tabulation procedures at 58 percent of the stations observed, an unprecedented figure even for Azerbaijan.
Even without the irregularities detected on and around election day, Aliyev had overwhelming advantages. The regime has long used its dominance of the mass media and the state’s boundless energy wealth to promote and burnish the president’s image as an effective leader. Indeed, Azerbaijan has experienced considerable economic growth since he succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, with per capita GDP reportedly rising from $850 to $7,850 in 2012. The luxurious boutiques and sculpted gardens that now adorn Baku have helped to create an impression of prosperity, setting the country apart from many other former Soviet republics.
However, despite the overall rise in income, wealth is distributed unevenly. With average salaries remaining around $600 per month, few citizens can do more than serve as spectators to the elite’s displays of opulence. Growing popular resentment of inequality and high-level corruption meant that the authorities could not rely on the president’s positive image alone to secure a win in the election. The regime began working carefully to quash any threats to Aliyev’s continued rule years before election day. Presidential term limits were abolished in 2009, and for the last several years the government has stepped up its efforts to muzzle dissent. While officials claim that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, reports indicate that politically motivated arrests, usually on fabricated drug charges, drastically increased in the two years prior to the election.
Given the repressive political climate, the critical flaws in the October 9 balloting were not unexpected. But unlike in the wake of unfair elections in Russia and Ukraine in recent years, democratic governments have remained fairly quiet about the vote. Azerbaijan appears to enjoy a certain immunity from criticism thanks to its strategic cooperation with the West. Among other roles, it serves as a major energy supplier to Europe and a key transit point for the U.S. military’s operations in Afghanistan.
The regime in Baku has done everything it can to safeguard this immunity, actively cultivating relationships with lawmakers and other officials in influential countries. Its work appeared to pay off this week, as election congratulations rolled in from friendly members of the U.S. Congress. A delegation of poll observers made up of former members of Congress praised the conduct of the voting, with former representative Michael McMahon of New York calling the election “honest, fair and really efficient.”
Aliyev also received congratulations from the likes of Vladimir Putin of Russia, Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, and the freely elected but increasingly imperious Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey. Finding themselves in such company, democratic officials should pause, take stock of their relationship with Azerbaijan’s rulers, and at the very least draw a distinction between strategic necessity and friendly embrace.
Katherin Machalek is a Caucasus analyst for Freedom in the World.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.