Five Myths About the 2008 Presidential Election in Azerbaijan

Did you like Russia's election? Get used to that model because many of the same strategies and tactics will be used by Azerbaijan's ruling party (YAP) in the October 2008 Presidential election. I doubt, however, that Ilham Aliyev will be satisfied with Unified Russia's 64%.

Radio Free Europe wrote about five myths about the Russian election last week. Because the myths are the same, it provides an excellent platform to discuss the Azerbaijan election.

1). President Ilham Aliyev is popular: I don't think Aliyev is unpopular but his popularity is the kind enjoyed by a leader who has no opposition: it's a mile wide and an inch deep. Soviet-style media outlets in Azerbaijan exist solely to promote his trips abroad, the schools and hospitals he opens and the growing economy over which he presides. If there's no media coverage of his shortcomings or any outlet for opposing views or any party or candidate offering an alternative, how can voters make an informed choice?

Would Aliyev be as popular among the IDPs who still live in holes in ground in Barda if they knew the speed and vulgarity at which his cronies are enriching themselves with the massive influx of oil money? What about the people whose electricity and water services become increasingly unreliable as Baku's growth --driven by corruption --outstrips its crumbling infrastructure?

Don't show me polls. No pollster operates in Azerbaijan except at the pleasure of the ruling regime. Plus, rather than measuring citizens' informed opinions, polls in Azerbaijan measure the degree to which the ruling regime's propaganda is successful. Not only are they worthless as data, they serve as further propaganda tools once they are released.2). Issues matter: Aliyev will be issue-oriented to the degree it demonstrates that, as the head of his clan, he's handing out enough goodies to make everyone happy. There will be no discussion about whether or not his approach is right for the country, whether his priorities are right or whether there's any accountability for the future. As in Russia, competing views will be marginalized or ridiculed, in the unlikely event they are aired in the first place, or, in the even more unlikely event that the opposition parties come up with an alternative plan to air.

3). Political parties matter: Let's make one thing clear: the political parties in Azerbaijan are a disaster. That assessment includes the ruling party, the opposition parties and the ones created on behalf of the government to placate the West. The opposition parties in Azerbaijan share many negative characteristics with political parties throughout the former Soviet Union, where freedom of assembly, press freedom and freedom of association are curtailed. Not only is it next to impossible for them to operate democratically in these environments, the parties that grow in those conditions are usually as stunted, myopic, incompetent and corrupt as the regimes they wish to replace.

Continual losses in falsified elections nourish opposition leadership and allows them to thrive on the illusion that they will achieve power if only elections were free and fair. Nothing would do more to flush out the gene pool of the opposition leadership in Azerbaijan than a reasonably free and fair election in which they achieved the 30%-35% they probably deserve. Then, and only then, would a genuine internal assessment take place and new leadership offering an alternative direction of the party emerge. Until then, the parties are stuck with the same leadership that served them so effectively during the 1990s. Watch them fight and bicker among themselves in the coming months and then each run a candidate for President, just like they did in 2003.

I worked a great deal with these parties prior to the 2005 election and as much as they made me insane, you go to elections with the parties you have, not the ones you want. Outsiders encouraging new parties or independent candidates is counter-productive. Encourage a free and open election and you might see better political parties.

4). Election rules matter: The election is still a while off so it's hard to know which election rules will be selectively applied. For the Parliamentary election, the pre-election period was "not that bad." Ballot access was pretty liberal but many candidates, especially in the regions where no one was paying attention, were prevented from meeting with voters and campaign offices were frequently vandalized. I doubt these will be big problems in the Presidential election. On the other hand, it's unlikely that known problems with voters' lists will be fixed, the election commissions are still stacked and there will be nothing even closely approximating free media or access to TV for anyone but the ruling party. Since Azerbaijan is not a reading country, getting on TV is vital for reaching voters. That matters a lot.

One of the government's favorite tactics has been to restrict opposition rallies, an approach I've never really understood. Obey your own laws and let them hold their pointless rallies; not only would it take a legitimate complaint off the table, holding endless stupid rallies distracts the opposition from doing real organizational work that might actually help them build public support. If rallies are legal, it might lessen the temptation for the security services to beat the hell out of people, too, something we watched nearly every weekend in the hot summer of 2005.

I would, however, expect that election day will live up to everyone's low expectations. I saw everything while monitoring in 2005 - carousel voting, intimidation, busing voters, people voting who had invisible ink on every finger on both hands, local officials voting on behalf of the elderly. It was fraud-tastic! I will be very curious to see if Aliyev is emboldened by Russia not issuing visas to OSCE's monitors. Other foreign election monitoring organizations have had difficulty securing invitations to monitor Azerbaijan elections in the past.

5) Election results will reflect the public will. The election results in Azerbaijan will reflect nothing more than the minimum percentage that the Aliyev regime thinks it can get away to maintain a shred of credibility with the west while demonstrating unchallengeable strength to its internal enemies. The Soviet-era imperative to win 98% or 99% has faded among the more Western-oriented regimes, like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but I'd be surprised if Aliyev is allowed to win less than 75%- 80%.

The fifth myth is actually the most important one: Elections imply "choice," so if there's no choice, why refer to it as anything else but a coronation?