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Aliyev May Win A Third Term, But A Fourth?

Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev is almost certain to win a third term this week, but he might not find it so easy the next time around.
Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev is almost certain to win a third term this week, but he might not find it so easy the next time around.
Heraclitus of Ephesus observed some 2,500 years ago that a man cannot step twice into the same river: in the interval, he will have changed, and so will the river. One could argue that, by the same token, the same man cannot be elected twice as president of the same polity. Certainly that holds true for Azerbaijan: the country that is gearing up for a presidential election on October 9 is in many ways a very different one from that in which Ilham Aliyev was reelected for a second term five years ago.

Since then, six trends have emerged that may collectively determine the outcome of the 2018 presidential ballot, even if Aliyev’s reelection on October 9 for a third term is a foregone conclusion.

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The first of those trends is mushrooming disaffection, albeit largely concealed, within the country’s leadership that pits a younger generation whom former U.S. Ambassador Matthew Bryza described as impatient for change against the entrenched and sclerotic apparatus that Ilham Aliyev inherited from his father Heidar a decade ago and continues to rely on.

The generation now in their 30s may be prepared to wait another five years for change; whether they would wait 10 years, or 15, is debatable.

The incumbent president is now 51; assuming he inherited his father’s robust constitution, he could theoretically remain in office another 25-30 years.

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The second trend is fissures within the elite, as exemplified by the unsuccessful attempt one year ago to implicate longtime presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev in the sale of parliamentary mandates in the run-up to the 2010 parliamentary election.

The fact that President Aliyev selected Mehtiyev as his personal emissary to Tehran in April for talks with then Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad suggests that even if the corruption allegations against Mehtiyev are true, Aliyev nonetheless considers him indispensable.

The third is the emergence in Moscow of a "potential leadership in exile," which includes several wealthy Russia-based Azerbaijani businessmen, together with former senior officials who left Azerbaijan after falling foul of the authorities. The most prominent among the latter category include former First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov, whom journalist Eynulla Fatullayev characterized 10 years ago as standing out among Ilham Aliyev’s "grey, faceless and frankly dumb" entourage.

The present leadership regards the Union of Azerbaijani Organizations of Russia, which Abbasov founded in September 2012, with profound suspicion and misgivings. YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov dismissed its member organizations as "having nothing in common with Azerbaijan," and accused Moscow-based Azerbaijani businessmen of exploiting as slave labor those Azerbaijanis who travel to Russia in search of employment.

The fourth is the increasing frequency of mass popular protests against corrupt local officials that escalate into violence and destruction, as was the case in Quba in March 2012 and Ismailly in January 2013.

The fifth is the key role played by social media in circulating information and mobilizing the disaffected.

And the sixth is the slowdown of the economy as exemplified by economic growth of between 1-3 percent in 2011 and 2012. In October 2012, President Aliyev publicly criticized British Petroleum, operator of the country’s Azeri-Chirag-Gyuneshli oil and Shah Deniz gas fields, for "false promises" and "gross errors" he claimed had led to a decline in oil output. Meanwhile, the export of natural gas from the second stage of the huge Shah Deniz field has been postponed from 2014 to 2017. Industrial output declined by nearly 4 percent in 2012.

At the same time, the main pillars of Aliyev’s support base still stand. A small coterie of his closest trusted associates still determines how billions of dollars from the export of Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon resources is spent.

The main opposition parties are excluded from parliament and sidelined by the state-controlled media.

Ethnic minorities whose loyalty to the regime is suspect are subject to repression: Hilal Mamedov, who campaigned to protect the rights of his Talysh minority, has just been sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Journalists who dare criticize official corruption risk a similar fate.

The international community remains reluctant to criticize Azerbaijan’s track record on suppressing civil and ethnic rights and media freedom and blatantly engineering the desired outcome to elections at all levels. Consequently, the Azerbaijani leadership has become the hostage of its own rhetoric. The official results gave Ilham Aliyev 79.5 percent of the vote in the 2003 presidential ballot and 88.73 percent in 2008; for him to poll less than the latter figure in 2013 would be to call into question official estimates of the popular support he allegedly enjoys.

Finally, contrary to some analysts'’ expectations, militant Islam has not evolved into a political force. Even the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan has failed to throw its weight behind a single presidential candidate, with some of its members supporting united opposition candidate Camil Hasanli and others Adalet party Chairman and former Azerbaijan SSR Prosecutor General Ilyas Ismailov.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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