Azerbaijan: Government Makes It Clear There Is No Alternative In Presidential Election – Analysis


By Joshua Kucera

(RFE/RL) — At a debate held before Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, the viewer could be forgiven for not being sure who was supporting the incumbent and who represented the opposition.

“President Ilham Aliyev has kept his word and fulfilled every promise he has made,” said one candidate, Fuad Aliyev (no relation to the president), at the January 15 public television debate. Another candidate, Zahid Oruc, argued that great Azerbaijani statesmen throughout history would all have voted for Aliyev.

The president himself did not appear at the debate but sent an emissary, Tahir Budagov, to absorb some of the flattery.

“Dear Mr. Tahir, do you know the strengths of the candidate you represent?” Razi Nurullayev, the head of the National Front Party, asked Budagov. “For years, our party has stated that we will liberate Karabakh and restore the integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan, but your candidate has done it,” Nurullayev said, referring to Azerbaijan’s recapture of the ethnic Armenian-dominated region of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023.

The parties in Azerbaijan that offer a genuine opposition to Aliyev — who has exercised authoritarian control over the country since assuming power from his father, Heydar, in 2003 — are all boycotting the race, ceding the field to these ersatz challengers. The only drama in Azerbaijan’s election, scheduled for February 7, is whether the margin of Aliyev’s fifth straight victory will top his record of 89 percent of the vote in 2008. (The next two elections, in 2013 and 2018, saw him get, a more modest 85 percent and 86 percent of the vote, respectively.)

The most unexpected thing about the election so far is that it was called at all. The vote had been scheduled for 2025, but Aliyev announced in early December that it would be moved up. While Aliyev is sure to maintain power no matter when the election takes place, the way it is being conducted indicates the degree to which he is unwilling to let even the slightest cracks emerge in the hardened armor of his rule.

Aliyev is still riding high on Azerbaijan’s complete victory over the self-proclaimed ethnic Armenian separatist government in Karabakh last fall, the quest that has defined his entire presidency. Over 100,000 ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh fled to Armenia in September 2023 as a result of Baku’s lightning military offensive.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. The two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire.

It’s not clear how long the euphoria of victory will distract from the country’s stagnant economy — gross domestic product grew by a mere 0.8 percent in the first 11 months of 2023, the World Bank reported — and rising social problems.

Aliyev “has more political capital after the [war], so for him it is much easier to run now,” said Anar Mammadli, a political analyst and head of the Baku-based Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center. “There is uncertainty about the future of the country, especially in terms of the social and economic situation. So that’s why they use this momentum.”

Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 2003, taking over for his father, Heydar Aliyev, who served as president for a decade.

Aliyev has offered his own three-part explanation for why the election was moved forward. In a January 10 interview with local television stations, he argued that the victory in Karabakh represented a “new era” that should be marked by new elections; that it will be the first time in post-Soviet Azerbaijan that elections can be held in Karabakh; and that Aliyev recently marked the 20th anniversary of his own time in power.

“Conducting elections after 20 years will, of course, sum up this chronological period,” he said.

Azerbaijan’s true opposition parties were not convinced and are boycotting the vote, as they have done the last several cycles. The last time a candidate who genuinely opposed Aliyev ran — historian Camil Hasanli in 2013 — he got under 6 percent of the vote.

“We were offered a bit role in this play, but we don’t want to take part in this performance,” Ali Karimli, the head of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, wrote on Facebook. “Let everyone see that this has nothing to do with an election or fair competition.”

The Musavat Party also declined to put forward a candidate.

There was some speculation that Qubad Ibadoglu, an economist who had recently entered politics and founded a new opposition party, might have been eyeing a run for the presidency, Mammadli said. But Ibadoglu was arrested in July 2023 on counterfeiting charges that he says are politically motivated. He remains behind bars.

While it’s not clear how much support Ibadoglu would have gotten in an election, he certainly would have been a thorn in Aliyev’s side, analyst Mammadli argued.

“Maybe Qubad is not as popular as Ali Karimli, but he is an outspoken person and could have challenged the government” as a presidential candidate, Mammadli said. “His arrest, I think, was part of the government’s preparation [for the vote] because they didn’t want to see any alternatives for this election.”

In the absence of any real competition, the role of the opposition is being played by a number of marginal figures. Three of this year’s candidates (aside from Aliyev) also ran in the 2018 presidential election, which was also characterized by a conspicuous lack of debate. (One of the candidates in that election even said he voted for Aliyev rather than himself.)

Most of this year’s candidates are members of parliament representing parties that are different in name from Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party but which, in reality, never challenge the government.

“They are completely government-created parties,” said Zohrab Ismayil, head of the Baku-based NGO Open Azerbaijan.

“Of the six presidential candidates standing in this election other than the incumbent, all have been supportive of the president in the recent past,” the mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights wrote in its interim report on the election.

Four of this year’s candidates were among the signatories of an October 2023 open letter fulsomely praising Aliyev: “The political parties operating in Azerbaijan once again express their political solidarity for the sake of the happy future of our country and declare their support to Your Excellency in your successful domestic and foreign policy for the prosperity of our people and the eternal sovereignty of our state.”

Another of the candidates, Oruc, is the head of the government-run Social Research Center and was appointed to his position directly by Aliyev.

The astroturf nature of the opposition candidates was underscored by the statistically improbable official figures for the number of signatures that they were receiving to get on the ballot: At one point, one candidate had 4,444 signatures, another 4,000, two had precisely 3,333, and the last two each had precisely 3,076.

The parties they represent are funded by the government and generally consist of just one or two figures, according to reporting by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service.

“In the past, they were paid illegally [by the government],” said Azer Gasimli, the head of the Baku-based Institute of Political Management think tank. “Now they have legalized these payments.”

The “opposition” candidates have brought some color to the election campaign by mooting a number of unlikely policy proposals: renaming the country the North Azerbaijan Republic, a nod to nationalist discourse that dreams of a greater Azerbaijan, including the ethnic Azerbaijani minority regions of Iran; formally claiming Armenia’s Syunik Province as Azerbaijani; or sending Azerbaijani troops to support Russian forces in Syria.

“They want to talk about all these stupid ideas in order to show that Aliyev is better [and] that these are the only alternatives,” Open Azerbaijan’s Ismayil said.

The election is taking place under unprecedentedly restrictive conditions. Azerbaijan has long been one of the most unfree countries in the post-Soviet space, according to international rankings. A new media law passed in 2022 and a law on political parties adopted the following year further tightened the space for political discussion. That was followed by a wave of arrests of independent journalists and other opposition figures over the last few months.

“We always knew that there was a good chance of election fraud by the authorities and that we would not win the elections. But at least we used to take advantage of the election periods to conduct our own campaign and to expose the regime,” Ilham Huseyn, a top official in the Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service.

“Now, they have arrested some of the journalists who were supposed to cover the election campaign and expose election fraud, and one of the main figures of the opposition camp, Tofiq Yagublu, was arrested on the most shameful charges.”

Nevertheless, the leading opposition parties have garnered some criticism for sitting out the vote.

“Unfortunately, the real opposition contributes to this picture” of a lack of alternatives in Azerbaijan, NGO head Ismayil said. “It’s not important just to win, but to organize a movement, to try to change the situation.”

“It seems that none of [the opposition leaders] have prepared for the elections and did not expect the decree on early elections,” Gasimli told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. “What has the opposition been doing all these years? The government created an agenda, and the opposition followed the agenda. Nothing else.”

  • Joshua Kucera is a journalist living in Tbilisi. He also contributes to Eurasianet, The Economist, and other publications.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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