President Ilham Aliyev won a landslide victory in the snap presidential election in Azerbaijan on April 11 in what was essentially a foregone conclusion.
His victory was made clear by preliminary results issued by the country's central election commission (CEC). Thus, Aliyev received 86% of the votes based on a count of 92% of the ballots, Mazahir Panahov, chairman of the CEC, announced in a press conference. Aliyev ran virtually unopposed. He has spent his past 15 years in office sidelining potential adversaries.
Aliyev will continue his presidency with an extended fourth term until 2025. Following the results of a referendum in 2016, he now enjoys even greater powers than before, and is poised to appoint a family member, likely his son or his wife, to succeed him.
Critics believe that the seven opponents that were allowed to run in the contest—the CEC did not accept the applications of seven other, better-known opposition politicians—are in essence puppets affiliated with Aliyev and the government. None of them won more than 3.11% of the vote, according to preliminary results.
Over time, Azerbaijanis have accepted the fact that Aliyev is the only alternative, and even find excuses for him, blaming the widespread corruption in the country on those around him rather than on the president himself.
In power since his late father passed away in 2003, Aliyev has ruled the country with an iron fist, centralising power in his hands and those of his family, ensuring that all the country's institutions come under political control, amassing a large amount of wealth, silencing critics—the use of ‘official’ online trolls and bots to harass journalists was on the eve of the election the subject of a report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)—and promoting the country as a source of rich energy reserves externally.
The voter turnout was 75.14%, according to the CEC. In a televised speech, Aliyev praised himself for his accomplishments in office. He referred to salaries rising by a factor of eight in the last 15 years (though important professions, such as teachers, continue to earn as little as $100 a month) and a tripling of the size of the country's economy in the same timeframe. "We have had a decent path, a path of triumphs and success. I am confident that we will always move forward on the path of success. Towards new triumphs!” he concluded.
Country’s authoritarianism “more deeply entrenched than ever”
In its most recent report on freedom in the world published on April 11, watchdog Freedom House gave Azerbaijan one of the worst possible scores—6.93 out of 7 (with seven being the worst) for democracy, corresponding to a consolidated authoritarian regime. In the report, Freedom House noted: "Authoritarianism in Azerbaijan became more deeply entrenched than ever in 2017, as the state apparatuses took a number of unprecedented steps to limit freedom of expression, silence critics at home and abroad, and crack down on minority communities for political gain. Rather than undertake long-needed governmental or economic reforms, the ruling elite responded to a persistently weak economy by further suppressing government critics, fighting behind-the-scenes battles over shrinking state resources, and emptying state coffers on international lobbying efforts."
Furthermore, Aliyev's appointment of his wife Mehriban as first vice president in February 2017 was an indication that his control over the country has strengthened considerably, the report noted. "The consequences of this personalization of the state are already being felt: independent media outlets suspected that the March large-scale attacks on their websites, which eventually led to a complete blockade, were instigated by [Mehriban] Aliyeva’s displeasure at their coverage of her appointment."
Several high-profile corruption scandals involving Azerbaijan, such as the 'Azerbaijani Laundromat', also unravelled last year, prompting Europe's human rights organisation, the Council of Europe, to conduct an internal investigation into how Azerbaijan bribed its members to win favourable votes. Azerbaijan has given ever stronger indications that its leaders no longer care about international criticism, Freedom House concluded, which explains why Baku has overextended its reach and arrested journalists and bloggers in third countries, and why it withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).
Looking ahead, Freedom House expects Aliyev to resort to diversionary tactics, like an escalation in the territorial conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in order to rally public support in 2018. Furthermore, while the Azerbaijani economy will benefit from slightly higher oil and gas prices and from the inauguration of a new gas pipeline, the improved economic activity is unlikely to trickle down to the population, its report concluded.