Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Восток - дело тонкое": Suddenly, the Azerbaijan Presidential Election Became More Interesting

The hero of the epic Soviet film White Sun of the Desert warns us that "the East is a delicate [or subtle] matter." While I don't subscribe to the cultural determinism suggested by the quote,* the notion of subtlety certainly applies to the events unfolding in Azerbaijan. It is all the more apropos because the man who co-authored the film's screenplay is the opposition's consensus candidate for president.

Azerbaijan's recent political history provides some context for the upcoming election. The political opposition gained the presidency shortly after the collapse of the USSR, but its brief period of leadership is not remembered fondly. The term of President Abulfaz Elchibey was abbreviated and disastrous, with the Nagorno-Karabakh war turning ugly and mutinous units moving toward Baku. It ended in Elchibey's ouster and Heydar Aliyev's return to power.** The most prominent opposition politicians who have contested past elections can be associated with the Elchibey administration and this connection has not been helpful to them. Rustam Ibragimbekov, the National Council of Democratic Forces nominee, does not have these associations (at least to my knowledge). Rather, he is well known for his work in the film industry and his critiques of the current regime.

While Azerbaijan's electoral practices have not been rated as free and fair by international observers,*** the results suggest that the process is not fully manufactured. In my analysis of dissenting votes from the 2008 presidential election and 2009 referendum, published in Comparative Political Studies, I noted that the results provide some insight into citizen preferences as well as hints of elite interference. The minor opposition candidates who contested the 2008 presidential election performed better in districts where they had a local affiliation (e.g., represented the region in parliament). If results were fully manufactured, the regime has little incentive to suggest that the opposition enjoys pockets of local support. Further, peculiar patterns of ballot invalidation in the referendum suggest local elite involvement and not a centrally guided process of vote manipulation. The decentralization of influence on elections contributes to risk for the regime. 

At the moment, we have many subtleties to consider prior to the vote slated for October 16, 2013.
  • On June 21, Mehriban Aliyeva was nominated by the Democratic Azerbaijan World Party, a move that was later lightly retracted. Shadowy patronage networks arguably play an important role in the distribution of power and wealth, and it is not surprising that the announcement has been portrayed as part of a broader conflict among networks.**** The nomination of a single opposition candidate could enhance these divisions, but it could also serve as a catalyst for consolidation around a third term for President Aliyev if the opposition threat is perceived as a realistic challenge. While opposition mobilization could be undermined by consistent and credible threats (the trial of "Eurovision Plotters" is but one example), divisions in the elite could create a perception that opposition mobilization efforts could be rewarded.
  • Another interpretation of Mehriban Aliyeva's potential nomination is that she is a hedge - Ilham's popularity is unclear and she may be more popular. One of the challenges for leaders in an authoritarian system that does not offer tests of accountability or meaningful assessments of public opinion is that the ruling elite cannot gauge effectively the popularity of any politician. This uncertainty undermines their risk assessment and tactical plans regarding how much they should attempt to control the election process.
  • The selection of a single candidate presents both potential risks and rewards to the opposition. A standard tactic in the post-Soviet region is to prevent strong opposition candidates from gaining ballot access, or to encourage them to withdraw on their own. "Black PR" and allegations of a candidate's lack of legitimacy can be used to achieve both ends. If Ibragimbekov's ballot access is blocked, or if he gains access and is subsequently removed, opposition voters have no alternative but a boycott. 
  • If Ibragimbekov gains ballot access, retains ballot access, and remains healthy, a regime tactic to undermine his candidacy would be to enhance threats of instability. The opposition's plan to limit his time in office to two years is an unintended assist to the regime. While the opposition characterizes this two-year period as transitional with institutional reforms, it highlights uncertainty. If tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan were to be heightened, it once again would serve as a reminder of the dark Elchibey period. An environment encouraging citizens to support stability favors the regime.
  • If regime proponents perpetrate fraud, it is most likely that efforts would be focused outside of Baku. Ibragimbekov is more likely to garner support in the capital, but he has fewer obvious connections outside of the capital. Authorities may limit the activities of international observers to facilitate such efforts.
  • The near simultaneity of the Georgian presidential election (scheduled for late October) could enhance international attention to the South Caucasus. But, if the Georgian election appears to be hotly contested and Azerbaijan shapes up as less competitive, the limited appetite for coverage of post-Soviet regional elections could be directed to Georgia rather than Azerbaijan.
In sum, recent events render the upcoming presidential election in Azerbaijan more interesting than anticipated. While I would expect regime divisions to become quieter and President Aliyev to win a third term, conditions are more "delicate" than expected.

*Indeed, the use of this phrase is not limited to matters of the "East."
**Aliyev led the Azerbaijan SSR until he was removed by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
***With the exception of the CIS and related observer groups.
****The notion that the president's wife would contest the election was raised before, prior to the 2009 referendum that lifted term limits in the constitution. Some characterized it as an effort by the Pashayev group to assert itself.