‘Eternal president’ and transitionary motive in Azerbaijan’s snap election

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

For many years, everyone said that whoever will liberate Karabakh will be our eternal president. I think that Ilham Aliyev has earned this position and title with the policy he implemented for 20 years, by serving the people of Azerbaijan and liberating the occupied territories. Every patriotic Azerbaijani is of this opinion.

This statement by the deputy chairman of the country’s ruling party, YAP, which has been in power for 30 years, reflects the dominant and paternalistic elite discourse nowadays in Azerbaijan. Following a decade in the “political gray zone,” since the mid-2000s, scholars and democracy indexers alike have ranked Azerbaijan as a hegemonic or consolidated authoritarian regime. Having frustrated the transition into some form of democracy, which was long anticipated by many societal groups, Azerbaijan is now completing a reverse transition and is heading toward a full-fledged dictatorial rule. 

Less than a couple of months after celebrating the 20th anniversary of his presidency at a military parade in Karabakh on December 7, 2023, Aliyev set a new date for a snap presidential election to take place two months later. While no formal justification was offered, some officials regarded the move as “staying ahead of some rapid regional processes.” The decision to hold a snap election, however, highlights a troubling pattern. It will be the third election in a row — presidential and parliamentary combined — that the authorities resorted to an earlier vote with no reasoning. This institutional uncertainty is becoming a norm rather than an exception. Autocratic learning is real —Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with two snap presidential elections in 2018 and 2023, though with different motives, has served as an example of breaking election cycles to ease clinging to power. 

The difference in the current case is that the period between the constitutionally prescribed election timeframe and the rescheduled date of vote is significantly longer. After a controversial referendum in 2016 allowing him to extend the presidential term from four years to seven, Aliyev held another uncontested election in November 2018, meaning the next presidential election was constitutionally set for November 2025. It will be held, instead, fourteen months ahead. 

While many are speculating on the rationale behind the snap election and pointing to geopolitical and economic factors — domestic politics, or lack thereof, is the key. Aliyev moved forward with an early vote simply because he did not face any constitutional or political constraints.

While snap elections are intended for periods of political turmoil in democracies, they are contrary in autocratic settings. In Azerbaijan, it is political stability based on regularized repressions; extreme popularity gained after the Karabakh regains in 2020 and 2023; discursive cooptation of non-state actors through nationalist narratives; and yet, sustained apathy of the population, particularly toward the electoral process, as the key determinants of depoliticization, that allow Aliyev to take arbitrary decisions without any contestation — but there is more to that. 

The Azerbaijani regime has gradually suppressed all potential challengers and pro-democracy voices over the past two decades. The latter, also embroiled in their own challenges of detachment from society, have never been more desolated. The regulative crackdown and criminal persecution have stymied Western-funded NGO sector development since 2013; two key opposition parties are regularly targeted and deprived of crucial resources, including rights to rally; and ordinary citizens are oppressed when they collectively object to government policies, as seen in the brutal response to the environmental protest in the Gadabay district in June. In 2023, the new stringent laws on media and political parties were enforced, creating a centralized registry system and overregulating their activities. Those who did not accede to the government-imposed restrictions, such as economy scholar Gubad Ibadoghlu, who intended to establish a new oppositional political party, were arrested on political grounds. 

Just ahead of the announced election, the remnants of independent media that did not align with the centralized and censored media system — and exposed political issues — came under grinding attack. Over the past two months, the government cracked down on Abzas Media, known for thorough corruption investigations, by raiding its office and arresting its director, Ulvi Hasanli, editor-in-chief  Sevinj Abbasova, and three of its journalists. They were labeled as “U.S. spies” in the state media as a part of a broader anti-West propaganda mirroring the Kremlin’s narratives. The country’s largest internet TV channel, Kanal 13, which reports on social problems, also faced the same fate, with its director and team members being arrested. The new generation of youth activists, like labor rights campaigner Afiaddin Mammadov, are also subjected to cycles of reprisals. 

Alongside repressions, or as a result of it, the Azerbaijani leadership has, managed to acquire the passive acquiescence of different generations of the population over the past thirty years. In a representative survey conducted among the country’s youth (ages: 14–29; number of responses: 1,605) in 2022, the plurality of respondents, 43 percent, indicated they are not interested in politics at all, and an additional 26 percent said they are not very interested in it.

Young residents of the capital Baku are even more disinterested in politics. Nearly 75 percent of the country’s youth did not partake in any socio-political activity in half a year, be it volunteering, petitioning, or online engagement. Support for democracy is also not very high, particularly in Baku, where 43 percent of the respondents were against the proposition that “democracy is the best system of governance for Azerbaijan,” and nearly a quarter did not have an opinion. There is also very weak access to political information. Still, when it comes to the perceptions of the biggest problems of the country, rising prices come first (58 percent), while territorial integrity, on which the regime builds its populist rhetoric, is often considered the second biggest issue. 

While the army is the most trusted institution (97 percent), the president enjoys 93 percent popularity rating among the youth.

Aliyev is hence capitalizing on two more factors to forge a fully centralized governance model. The first is his standing as a victorious commander-in-chief and foreign policy mastermind with public support at its pinnacle. Yet, it was unlikely that Aliyev would significantly lose his legitimacy until the regular election period in 2025 with significant economic reserves and political capital. But the time is right for him as the world is seeing the demise of liberal international order and the leap of the multipolar era with empowered autocratic alliances. Moreover, some turbulence is foreseen for the next two years, with finalizing a peace deal with Armenia in the coming months, presidential elections in Russia and the United States in 2024, expected but uneasy withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the Azerbaijani territories in 2025, and potential developments in Ukraine-Russia war. Thus, Aliyev is seeking to renew his mandate before these to complete the transition into a political system where he, as a strongman, has full control over societal dynamics and information flows.  

The discourse of the “eternal president,” increasingly expressed by officials and government-linked public figures, is not just lip service. Azerbaijan is moving into a dictatorial rule similar to Turkmenistan’s. Here, the regime has fewer reasons to imitate democracy and constitutionalism, even if it is intended for autocratic ends. There have been some bold signs of this. The country’s land borders have remained closed for nearly four years without any reasonable explanation. Moreover, as imprisoned academic Ibadoghlu consistently pointed out, the economic sphere is fully concentrated in the hands of the ruling family through state and family companies. Unlike in the past, any emerging pro-democracy political groups are crushed immediately. 

Much will depend on whether and how the non-state actors will be able to protect their ever-narrowing space. The opposition parties will be boycotting the election, citing an uneven playing field. Many others are in survival mode, with the limited energy diverted to the cases of a growing number of political prisoners. Despite the grimness and fear, however, some political initiatives still surface. A notable one is the Third Republic — a platform established in December 2023 by a group of known experts with political past — aiming to restore the rule of law, transform from “one-man rule” into a parliamentary republic, decentralize the governance, and curb systemic corruption. While they have already come under repression and surveillance, time will show if they will successfully navigate through troubling waters. 

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