Few doubt Azerbaijan’s strongman president has a genuine base of public support, but October’s election is unlikely to give its true measure.by Arifa Kazimova 6 September 2013
BAKU | Vusal Tagiev lives with his wife and three children in Neftchala, about a two-hour drive south of Baku. At 35, he is unable to work due to ill health that necessitated surgeries on his eyes and stomach. His children are growing up in a home with a concrete floor, but with a monthly social allowance of 150 manats ($191), he can’t afford to make improvements, and he says local officials have ignored his numerous requests for help.
Now Tagiev plans to file a complaint with President Ilham Aliev’s office. But that does not mean he won’t be supporting Aliev’s bid for re-election in Azerbaijan’s presidential vote next month.
“I believe in the president. I’ve always voted for him and will do so in the future. I would die if not for him,” Tagiev said. “He always tells officials to help citizens, but some simply do not obey the president.”
Whether votes like Tagiev’s are offered sincerely – or whether Aliev needs them, strictly speaking – is an open question among independent observers of Azerbaijani politics. In 2003, when he first ran to succeed his father, former President Heydar Aliev, Ilham Aliev ostensibly received 77 percent of the vote. Five years later, the figure was 87 percent. International monitors criticized both elections as marred by massive irregularities that guaranteed the regime’s success, from state media control that quashed opposing views to outright fraud.
In 2009 the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) pushed through controversial constitutional amendments that, among other changes, lifted the two-term limit on presidential service. Now Aliev is running for a third five-year term, and most Baku watchers consider the result of the 9 October balloting a foregone conclusion.
Would Aliev win if not for his government's restriction of dissenting voices – its crackdown on rights groups and intimidation of journalists? Few doubt the president commands significant support among the population of 9.4 million, but how much is difficult to determine.
An EU-funded autumn 2012 survey of 1,000 Azerbaijanis did find high levels of public contentment, with 65 percent of respondents saying they are satisfied with their lives and 92 percent expressing trust in the government. A survey conducted by the government-affiliated REY Monitoring Center in late July found that Aliev would get 81 percent of the vote. But more recent polling by independent sociological service ADAM pegged the president’s support at just 26 percent.
Hafiz Hasanov, head of civil society group the Law and Development Public Union, said no poll accurately reflects the political reality in Azerbaijan because respondents do not answer questions truthfully.
“There is a fear in society. When they are asked a question about elections, they don’t give real answers,” he said. “They think the results of the poll will be sent somewhere and it will have consequences for them.”
For his part, Aliev is campaigning – and using the powers of incumbency – as if he were in a competitive race. He has spent much time in recent weeks visiting provincial districts, cutting red ribbons, and touting increased allocations for local social and economic development, all of it well-covered by state-run and pro-government media. Public employees have been given a 10 percent pay raise.
He has also taken steps seemingly aimed at quelling public discontent over corruption and high-handed behavior by government officials, which spilled over into rioting in January in the town of Ismayilli. Shortly after those protests Aliev reprimanded officials and their families for “obnoxious behavior,” and he has ordered ministers to go to local districts and hear residents’ complaints. On the other hand, authorities have also locked up two opposition leaders and charged them with fomenting unrest in connection with that riot.
The ruling party frames the election in largely economic terms, touting Azerbaijan’s growth and crediting the government with creating 1 million jobs in the past decade. Buoyed by oil and gas revenues, Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product grew annually by double-digits during Aliev’s first term, although it was hit hard by the global slowdown and barely eked out a 1 percent increase in 2011, according to the World Bank,
“International organizations recognize Azerbaijan’s dynamic development over the past 10 years,” Hadi Rajabli, a member of the YAP political council, said in a recent interview on the party’s website. “All the achievements are due to Ilham Aliev’s activity, and the people know who to vote for in 2013.”
Rauf Sadigov, a 50-year-old Baku businessman who formerly operated a bus service, said he unreservedly supports the president. He credits the Aliev family for his success.
“I met no obstacles and no bribery when I started my business under former President Heydar Aliev, may he rest in peace,” Sadigov said. “I haven’t seen anything bad from government officials. I was an ordinary person, launched a business, and maintained it for years. Currently I have some financial problems, but I’m very satisfied with the current system and will vote only for Aliev.”
STABILITY VS. DEMOCRACY?
Asked for his estimate of the regime’s true support, Anar Mammadli, an activist and director of the Elections Monitoring and Democratic Studies Center, cited Azerbaijan’s 2005 parliamentary voting, which he characterized as the closest the country has come to a fair election: “The number of candidates, as well as the election campaign, reflected a real competition of opposing forces.” The center did its own count of the 2005 ballots and calculated that YAP received about 420,000 of approximately 1.97 million votes cast, just over 21 percent.
YAP won 61 of the 125 single-member seats in the 2005 voting, in which more than 1,500 candidates ran.
Political scientist and former opposition politician Zardusht Alizadeh said he believes the regime would have a base of at least 25 to 30 percent in a free and fair election. The government’s repressive tactics stem from fear of the remaining 70 percent, he said.
“What would happen if the opposition gathers 25 to 30 percent, uses certain political techniques, and increases its electorate to some 40 or 50 percent? The Aliev regime understands the danger,” Alizadeh said.
Rufat Garagozlu, head of the ADAM center, said Aliev’s genuine backers are primarily conservatives who believe the regime confers stability and any alternative brings risk.
“They fear losing their jobs and revenues in case of political change,” he said. “When you ask such people whether they want democracy or stability, they say they want stable development, even with restricted freedoms. Even though they have problems because of corruption, they say they are not sure what will happen if other forces come to power.”
Government employees, who number about 1 million nationwide, are another important center of support for the regime, according to Garagozlu, even though many live in poor conditions with low salaries. “Some receive 100 to 200 manats” a month, he said. “How can they support Ilham Aliev? They pretend to be satisfied, fearing further repression.”
“Narmina Gulieva,” a Baku schoolteacher (who asked that her real name not be used), said most of her colleagues are likely to support the incumbent – “some out of fear, some out of sympathy.” Many polling places are located in schools, and teachers often serve on election commissions that are chaired by their headmasters.
“We were called to school during the summer holidays, asked for our ID cards, and gave our signatures for Ilham Aliev to submit to the Central Elections Commission,” Gulieva said. Presidential candidates are required to submit 40,000 signatures to the commission to register for the ballot; so far Aliev is the only candidate to qualify.
Mammadli, of the elections monitoring center, said years of administrative pressure and restrictions on free expression have sapped voters’ confidence in elections, creating an increasingly passive electorate. “The authorities have an obvious intention in this process, to reduce voter turnout,” he said.
In such circumstances, most Azerbaijanis simply don’t know where else to turn, said Shahin Aliev, an entrepreneur who supplies toys to some Baku markets, and who said his business has been hindered by corruption and bureaucratic obstacles. He likened voters’ situation to the Stockholm Syndrome.
“Do you remember the case when victims began sympathizing with the terrorist who captured them? This is the case in Azerbaijan,” he said. “People have lived under restrictions for decades and have developed sympathy for their captor.”