With the Azerbaijani presidential election rolling around on Oct. 9, there is little doubt as to who will take home the crown. Soon to be elected to his third term in office, President Ilham Aliyev by all counts still has the majority support of the population, although the official tally will likely boost by tens of points, a figure commonly thought to hover just above the fifty-percent mark. Already marred by the government’s refusal to let opposition figure Rustam Ibragimbekov into the race, the election will be neither free nor fair, but it will nonetheless be remembered as a milestone in the political history of this Caspian state.
With Azerbaijani election law prohibiting dual citizens from entering the race and the Russian authorities stalling on Ibragimbekov’s request to renounce Russian citizenship, the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces met at an emergency session in the final days of August to advance the candidacy of their reserve hitter Camil Hasanli, a prominent historian and a one-time adviser to former president Abulfaz Elchibey. Then, in an unexpected move, Isa Qambar, the leader of Azerbaijan’s largest opposition block and a former presidential candidate, relinquished his candidacy in support of Hasanli.
Although not the opposition’s candidate of choice and little known outside the elite circles of the capital of Baku, Hasanli has run a campaign, in some respects, unprecedented for Azerbaijan. Social-media driven and geared toward younger voters, the campaign boasts a Western-style online platform, posters refreshingly modern for Azerbaijani politics, an official Facebook account with a following of some 30,000 users (an impressive number, but a drop in the ocean on the backdrop of the country’s nine-million population) and has been supported by youth rallies and fan-videos from minority groups, indicating that a new political era may well be on the threshold.
The only problem is that Hasanli simply cannot win – even if the election were to be free and fair. For now, in any case, the support of the majority population remains securely behind the current president.
Azerbaijan’s natural resources are in great measure to be thanked for this support. Since assuming office in 2003, Aliyev has ushered in several rounds of economic development, launching the much-anticipated Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhun and South Caucasus pipelines that bypass Russia and Iran and provide the West with a reliable source of sweet oil outside the Middle East. The projects quickly filled the government’s coffers with funds to start select infrastructural projects, rebuild Baku, and set aside savings for a rainy day (and then some) in the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan, which helped the Caspian state to survive the global economic crisis nearly unscathed. Aliyev’s administration also pushed for the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway project, which may open in 2014 and will connect Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, serve as a boon to the regional economy, and potentially reawaken a centuries-long slumbering Silk Road.
Under Aliyev, Azerbaijan has tasted the fruit of oil boom development. While GDP growth jumped from 11.4% in 2003 to a blistering 34.5% in 2006 and 25% in 2007 – only to hit a lull in the wake of the financial crisis – the poverty rate dropped sharply from 15.8% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2011, according to the World Bank. At the same time, life expectancy rose from 68 to 71 from 2003 to 2011, while Azerbaijan climbed 21 spots from 98th to 67th place in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report from 2006 to 2013.
Indeed, much of the population has reaped economic rewards under the Aliyev regime. But the corruption and the bureaucracy plaguing the system are becoming less justifiable to the increasingly well-off public, who today are far less concerned with putting food on the table than having the right to openly speak their voice. As the annual revenues brought in by the pipelines dim and fall to the background, Aliyev faces the choice of implementing a democratic reform program, or tightening his control over the government, in which case he will one day be relegated to the ranks of the world’s numerous other ousted authoritarians.
Stepping into the presidency after the death of his father, Heydar, who led the country from the depths of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Ilham inherited benefits and difficulties. Although by that time the pipelines were certain to launch and bring storied revenues to the economy, Ilham was surrounded by his father’s aging comrades, who he strategically – out of loyalty or some other necessitude – has left in government until these “dinosaurs” retire or pass away, at which point he replaces them with younger, competent technocrats. Although their appointments indeed seem to show a will to change the system, Ilham’s patience with the fossilized elites may prove greater than the Azerbaijani public’s tolerance or that of the international community. At the same time, should he opt for real democratic reform, he will face the problem of having to motivate executive management. Some decision-makers (especially from the older generations) may prove unmalleable to change, as they fail to see legitimate support from the West. Viewing their implementation of the BTC and South Caucasus pipelines as a hard-won victory over Russia for the benefit of the Western world, they are less than enthused as to how Azerbaijan is depicted in international press. Coverage of Azerbaijan, in their eyes, is far from objective, with only “two stories” emanating from its shores, one lauding Azerbaijan’s energy reserves and the other deriding its leaders for a lack of reform. As a result, they are complacent, perceiving the West as having “double standards.”
With only a putative opposition, Aliyev is undoubtedly a shoe-in for the presidency – electoral tampering aside. He continues to hold the majority support of the people due to Azerbaijan’s economic revitalization and the “rally round the flag” effect from the continuing conflict with Armenia. But Hasanli’s energetic campaign and the decision of Qambar, who long held a monopoly over the opposition, to willingly exit the race in his support, may mean that a new chapter has opened in Azerbaijani politics. Entering his third term, Aliyev now faces his most difficult decision yet – whether to continue relying on the economy as a means to win over the people, or to begin pushing for tangible democratic change. Rest assured, all the while, a rapidly maturing opposition will be waiting in the wings for a misstep by this aging regime.