Azerbaijan going through electoral motions

Ilham Aliyev faces token opposition

Voting is a formality

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Saturday October 11, 2008

Ilham Aliyev, center, with his wife Mehriban and his late father Heydar.

Washington - Looking at Azerbaijan's news portals this week, it is impossible to tell that on October 15 there will be a vote for the country's next president.

On one popular site,, the main newsmakers of October 7 are Armenia's Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and a Russian official who coordinates the work of the generally moribund Commonwealth of Independent States. Among the most popular items this week are a video of a hazing incident in the Azerbaijani army, problems with the Baku water supply, and the local crime beat.

Watching the sixth presidential election in Azerbaijan's history is proving to be as exciting as watching the grass grow. There may be seven candidates, but no one is betting on the six of the seven with sitting president Ilham Aliyev's re-election but a mere formality.

Since Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and some other entities, it has to hold elections; even more dictatorial Turkmenistan occasionally does. But elections in Azerbaijan have always been a one-man show rather than a competition between candidates.

If there is one place in the world where political scientist Francis Fukuyama's prediction of the "End of History" is proving true so far, it is in Azerbaijan. Except, Professor Fukuyama's prediction of worldwide democratization has not quite come through.

As the late Heydar Aliyev used to say "democracy is not something you can buy in the bazaar." As a result Azerbaijan had to settle for a more traditional system.

Feudal rule with tribal foundations

This is how it has always been. The last decade and a half has seen the clock rolled back on the Russian­-­imposed European enlightenment in Azerbaijan. It is back to the khanate system.

Like in Armenia and Georgia, which also have no democratic traditions, sitting presidents in Azerbaijan have the unchecked powers of a feudal lord to set the rules of political competition and enforce them. And they successfully exercise local political power of voter turnout assuring their own or their handpicked successors' election.

But unlike Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan's president also has a monopoly on economic power and money. More than 80 percent of the country's income comes from oil production and sale controlled by the president. The president's cronies, who double as government officials, have monopolies on the main consumer goods.

Several years ago, when political surveys were still done in Azerbaijan, the list of the richest people in Azerbaijan was topped by the Aliyevs' associates, such as the customs director or transport minister, and hardly a person from outside the government hierarchy. A couple of exceptions were Russia-based Azerbaijan natives who are allowed a limited economic presence in the homeland.

Moreover, nearly all of the privileged are tied by family or tribal connections to the Aliyevs. At least 12 of 28 cabinet-level officials, most of them in the same jobs since the early 1990s, are direct Aliyev relatives or were born in or have roots from the Aliyevs' native Nakhichevan and Armenia, two places that provide the bulk of the "soldiers" for the ruling family. These individuals also hold influential positions in the president's office and dominate lucrative jobs in the oil sector, various inspectorates, and the police.

Since the Aliyev restoration in 1993, challenges to the regime have come primarily from inside this elite, above all from disgruntled relatives or cronies who grow rich and over-confident. But none has been successful, with perpetrators now in prison or exile. None is openly challenging Ilham Aliyev in this election cycle.

The military, currently being pumped with cash, may eventually emerge as a source of discontent toward the status quo. But few signs of any such development have been observed so far.

Finally, a challenge could theoretically come from abroad, for example from the company formerly known as British Petroleum (bp), which is the only foreign entity with a significant presence in Azerbaijan. But so far bp and other foreign players have had few reasons to go after the Aliyevs.

As a result, the president is standing, lonely, with six token candidates. According to reports from Azerbaijan, there are no visible election rallies or posters.

Aliyev Jr. continues to focus his public appearances on endless inaugurations of Heydar Aliyev statues, museums, and parks around Azerbaijan. According to RFE/RL, more than 100 of them have appeared since a 2004 presidential decree mandating that every Azerbaijani town have some.

Challengers taken care of ahead of elections

The Baku airport, Azerbaijan's highest peak, the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the biggest offshore production platform, and even a couple of distant stars of our universe carry his name. He is the best-known and probably most accomplished Azerbaijani in history, having made a rapid career in the KGB to be then elevated to Soviet political stardom as one of only about a dozen Politbureau members in 1982.

But even Heydar Aliyev had his dark periods. Ousted by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, he fell victim to infighting between Mr. ­Gorbachev's reformers and his conservative opponents. Mr. Aliyev had to fight to keep his government car and saw his son expelled from the Soviet diplomatic academy and forced to make a living, as many other Soviet citizens, from petty trade between Istanbul and Moscow.

Heydar Aliyev could have gone quietly but he decided to take back what he felt should rightfully belong to him. In 1990 he launched a political challenge against Ayaz Mutalibov, then the Soviet Azerbaijani leader. Forced to stay out of Baku, Mr. Aliyev went to his native Nakhichevan, where he quickly became its leader, formally a parliament speaker.

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