Unprecedented public discontent, not the opposition, should be the regime's main worry.
Azerbaijan's presidential elections on 9 October are not the most exciting event of the election season in the Caucasus - that prize goes to Georgia (on 27 October, these will be closely fought). The Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, is certain to win his third term.
Aliyev's re-election should not surprise anyone: preparations started immediately after he had won his second term in 2008 and subsequently banned foreign radio broadcasts, stifling media freedom. The constitutional limit decreeing a maximum of two presidential terms was then removed by a referendum. No opposition parties were left in parliament after the fraudulent 2010 parliamentary elections. The regime's efforts to control the political scene have increased further this year. Steep fines have contributed to increasing self-censorship among the press and in June new legislation criminalized defamatory (i.e. critical towards the regime) comments posted on the internet. Arrests and detention of opposition supporters have become more frequent, together with attempts to discredit opposition journalists. During the official campaign period, Aliyev has made full use of 'administrative resources', including the government's control over all television stations with nationwide coverage. The opposition have complained of intimidation and harassment during their meetings with voters.
Such treatment seems unnecessary. The opposition in Azerbaijan does not currently pose a real threat. While Ilham Aliyev's intention to retain the presidency has been clear for a long time, the political opposition have failed to prepare for the forthcoming elections. The country’s opposition lacks a positive agenda. Their campaign is based on criticizing the regime's unaccountability and corruption, but they have not put forward any concrete steps to improve the situation. Opposition parties have therefore found it difficult to win the trust of the electorate. They also lack financial resources (Azerbaijan-born billionaires still prefer football and celebrities to politics) and their preparations began far too late. The main opposition parties grouped into the National Council at the end of 2012, yet they only managed to agree on a joint presidential candidate in early summer this year. Their first choice was Rustam Ibragimbekov, an Oscar-winning screenwriter living in Russia. However, Ibragimbekov's dual citizenship prevented his candidacy – an obstacle that the Council should have foreseen. In the end, the opposition was forced to nominate another candidate, Camil Hasanli, a respected historian, but whose popularity does not match that of Ibragimbekov – although his lack of political experience does.
Close ties with the EU
The election is unlikely to generate a strong reaction from the international community beyond observers' usual reports on the flawed character of the procedures. A recently signed gas export deal with Europe and the slowly commencing transfer of military equipment from Afghanistan via Azerbaijan will likely mean that the EU and US will refrain from taking any action – after all, they have never done so in the past. In Azerbaijan's immediate neighbourhood, Russia appears comfortable enough with Aliyev's presidency; Turkey and Iran are wrestling with their own domestic issues, while Armenia is trying to quell domestic dissatisfaction after its recently and abruptly announced entry into the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. Georgia, as noted above, is focusing on its own presidential election. Indeed, Baku knows that if all goes reasonably well, international observers will soon switch their attention to Tbilisi, where they hope to find a more optimistic picture.
This does not mean that Ilham Aliyev has nothing to worry about. Although the elite appear to be playing together well (half of the ministers in Aliyev's cabinet have been in their post for ten years or more), signs of popular discontent are beginning to appear. Baku and the regions have seen several protests over the past few months over issues ranging from mismanagement by the local authorities to bad conditions in the military. Recent corruption allegations have dented the regime's image, linking the Aliyev family to offshore companies registered in the British Virgin Islands through a company whose owners have won several big contracts from the Azerbaijani government, including for the construction of the Flame Towers, Baku's controversial new landmark.
While corruption has always been part of the political scene in Azerbaijan, oil earnings have increased its magnitude exponentially. Aliyev's government has attempted to counter the allegations with an anti-corruption campaign focusing largely on low-level officials. This was accompanied by the launch of the ASAN (simple) Service, an e-government portal for easier facilitation of administrative procedures (renewing licences, registering births etc.). However, at the same time the parliament has restricted public access to information about business ownership in the country. Youth dissatisfaction may also prove a challenge in the future; even more than political reform, the post-Soviet generation is frustrated by its lack of access to quality education and job opportunities.
For now, the main risk stems from whether the regime will mismanage the post-election situation. Reports of recruitment of additional troops ahead of the elections suggest the government is worried about the possibility of protests. Excessive use of force, further restrictions on political expression or attempts to clear the political arena completely could slowly tilt the balance of public support towards alternatives to the current leadership, however imperfect they may be.