President Aliyev’s snap election in Azerbaijan locks in his legitimacy and normalizes his prerogative

As Azerbaijan faces transitions in its relations with Armenia and its energy portfolio, this week’s poll secures the leadership into the next decade.

Expert comment Published 5 February 2024 3 minute READ

On 7 February Azerbaijan will go to the polls in a snap presidential election called by President Ilham Aliyev in December.

President since 2003, Aliyev is seeking re-election for a fifth term of seven years (the length of presidential terms introduced by referendum in 2016) to 2031, when he will turn 70. A previous referendum in 2009 abolished the limit to the number of terms a president can serve.  

The election campaign has yielded no surprises in a political system which scholars have defined as a hegemonic variant of authoritarianism. The campaign has featured a performative pluralism, in which multiple candidates – generally figures not well known to the public – participate, but are united in their praise of the incumbent, who does not himself campaign.

Azerbaijan’s opposition parties meanwhile have boycotted the election – as they have done for a decade. Unlike Azerbaijan’s last presidential election in 2018, there have been no rallies.

Yet there has been the customary silencing of critics. A dozen journalists known for their investigative work on corruption were targeted in a wave of arrests on charges of smuggling cash, extortion and petty hooliganism.  

Locking in legitimacy

There have been numerous explanations for bringing forward the election, originally scheduled to take place in 2025.

These include uncluttering the political calendar in that year (when parliamentary elections are scheduled, and the current mandate of Russia’s peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh expires), and stabilizing Azerbaijan’s domestic politics in advance of uncertainty in the Russo-Ukrainian war.  

The dominant context, however, is Azerbaijan’s military operation in Mountainous Karabakh on 19 September. This resulted in the final dissolution of the secessionist entity in the territory and the mass displacement of the entire ethnic Armenian population.

This development fulfilled a national mission long seen as the sole source of consensus in Azerbaijan, and provides an opportune moment for a revitalized nation-building programme premised on the idea of a new era and even a ‘fourth republic’, with President Aliyev as its founder.

The most plausible reasoning for the snap election is therefore the desire to lock in the unprecedented legitimacy flowing from President Aliyev’s new status as a ‘victorious president’ – at the peak of his popularity.

Dominion over Armenians has featured consistently as a staple of Aliyev’s speeches for internal audiences since 2020. The extent to which the wider population buys into anti-Armenian rhetoric is difficult to say. But there is no doubt that President Aliyev has never been more popular.

Should Azerbaijan normalize relations with Armenia…it would imply the end of a three-decades old political strategy which ordered Azerbaijani society around the axis of the conflict.

Anecdotally, even some of those sceptical of his regime prior to 2020 concede the role of a strong centralized leadership in reversing the battlefield catastrophes of the First Karabakh War in 1992-94, when leadership struggles in Baku were a key factor in Azerbaijan’s defeat.  

Perpetual mobilization

Azerbaijan’s domestic political scene is indeed entering a new era, as the two dominant structural factors of the last 20-30 years – the Karabakh conflict and the oil boom – are in flux.  

Should Azerbaijan normalize relations with Armenia through the peace agreement currently under discussion, it would imply the end of a three-decades old political strategy which ordered Azerbaijani society around the axis of the conflict. This strategy was largely successful in discrediting dissent and explaining the delay of reform.

But with Karabakh recovered and Armenia militarily neutralized, the logic of this diversionary politics no longer holds. Without Armenian enmity and incomplete sovereignty as organizing principles, a new focus on the content of Azerbaijani sovereignty and citizenship is inevitable.

This appears to be the context for undiminished – even growing – rhetoric and imagery in leadership speeches and media of territorial expansionism focused on Armenia, seemingly seeking to perpetuate a population mobilized around conflict rather than other ideas.  

Energy transitions

A second determinant of Azerbaijan’s domestic politics over the last two decades has been oil windfalls. The country has developed as a ‘rentier state’, where ‘rents’ deriving from fossil fuel exports constitute the overwhelming source of government income.

Dependency on these revenues remains very much in place, as Azerbaijan has benefited from a buoyant oil price and the sanctioning of Russian oil and gas to Europe.

Baku appears to be pursuing a strategy of ‘rent diversification’ [which] would build the capacity to transition from fossil fuel dependency to multiple revenue streams.

Yet the country is also facing mid- and long-term energy transitions: from oil to gas, and from fossil fuels to renewables. The country has considerable potential to produce solar and offshore wind energy, and the government is investing in a new profile as an exporter of green energy – notably through hosting COP29.

Combined with Azerbaijan’s pivotal geographic location and its centrality to all of the Eurasian connectivity schemes currently under discussion, Baku appears to be pursuing a strategy of ‘rent diversification’. This would build the capacity to transition from fossil fuel dependency to multiple revenue streams from other forms of energy and transit rents.

However, this transition is uncertain, dependent on numerous variables, some of them beyond Azerbaijan’s control.

Normalizing prerogative

While this election can be understood as an exercise in converting political opportunity in advance of uncertainty, the medium is also the message. This is the third time that general elections in Azerbaijan have been brought forward.

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The parliamentary elections of 9 February 2020 happened nine months earlier than planned, after President Aliyev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party requested parliament’s dissolution amid public discussion of reform of the administration and generational change. In the event 87 of the 125 members of parliament retained their seats.

The last presidential election on 11 April 2018 was also brought forward by six months by presidential decree. Uncluttering the political calendar later in 2018 was among the official explanations given.

The principal message is that major events in the Azerbaijani political calendar are decided by regime expediency and not by law.

The calling of snap elections is consequently a normalized practice in Azerbaijan, for which the same explanations are given: facilitation of new eras, and lightening the political calendar.

There may indeed be tactical and strategic reasons behind the choice of particular dates. However, the principal message is that major events in the Azerbaijani political calendar are decided by regime expediency and not by law.

This week’s poll therefore locks in the current wave of presidential legitimacy into the next decade, but also normalizes presidential prerogative should that legitimacy begin to fade.