Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

CAN 2020 PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS BE A TURNING POINT IN AZERBAIJAN?

Azerbaijani Parliament

POST ELECTION MOVES WILL BE CRUCIAL

Parliamentary elections are due to take place in Azerbaijan next year. Considering that almost all elections have been rigged since the independence of the country, it would be naive to expect that President Ilham Aliyev’s regime is going to allow the will of the people to triumph. However, what sets these upcoming elections apart from previous ones is the reality on the ground – the country cannot be ruled with an iron first anymore. Azerbaijan is facing big challenges including socio-economic stagnation, high unemployment, difficulty attracting foreign investment, endemic corruption, declining economic productivity, the flow of the ruling elite’s illegally acquired wealth out of the country, and the unresolved conflict over Karabakh with Armenia. All of these pressing issues are the result of the authoritarian way of governance over more than two decades. Delaying economic reforms and preventing economic liberalism for more than a decade have also damaged the country’s business sector and it seems absurd today to talk about prosperity.

The political and economic grip of President Aliyev and his family has led to devastating consequences for the citizens of Azerbaijan. The economy is tightly controlled by members of the ruling family and of families close to them. The total monopoly and systemic corruption make it difficult for ordinary citizens to run businesses. Despite the oil boom Azerbaijan experienced from 2005, the middle class does not exist in reality and the gap between rich and poor has widened. Officially, there are no millionaires in Azerbaijan since independence. In fact, the ruling family and its allies have acquired almost all the benefits of the oil and gas.

Recently, President Aliyev started criticising his cabinet members and regime representatives for their obstructive roles in blocking reforms. Ironically, everybody knows that it is the president’s will and decisions that have delayed economic and political reforms in the county for many years. Dismissing some of the old guard and appointing new young officials and trying to revive the stagnant non-oil sector cannot be called genuine reforms, which require public consultations and participation. All his recent moves are structural reforms to enable the regime to be more responsive to the public and to allow the ruling family to facilitate partial, controlled reforms. As a rule, economic reform requires the full participation of society in the process and their concerns being put on the agenda. Right now, there is no public participation in these processes, which go on behind closed doors. If President Aliyev is really interested in solving the pressing issues, the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections are a golden opportunity to do so.

WHY 2020 ELECTIONS MATTER

Economic problems are related to bad governance and state level corruption in Azerbaijan. The regime’s cosmetic structural reforms are not going to be enough to solve the pressing socio-economic issues. President Aliyev in his speeches and TV appearances has criticised his aides and ministers for the hardships in the country, thereby distancing himself from the issues. This kind of political move does not send the message that the president is a reformist and those long-time appointees in his government are to be blamed for the slowing economic growth etc. Ilham Aliyev wants to reposition himself as a reformist, which reminds us of the failure of the 2003 presidential elections. Having failed to tackle the eroded bureaucratic system around the country Ilham Aliyev cannot present his partially critical speeches or remarks against his fellow government members as genuine reforms. It would be silly to brand his structural reforms as a top-down approach to facilitating change too, as they are not real reforms.

Speaking at the second conference of world religious leaders in Baku, Ilham Aliyev made another of his attacks against the opposition, branding the 1992-93 opposition government period as a “black page” in Azerbaijan’s history and accusing opposition leaders of being “traitors”. Ilham Aliyev is well known for trying to intimidate the Azeri opposition. Like his father, he thinks that this gives him the opportunity to present his iron fist regime as the true guarantor of stability. In fact, iron fist rule can be called temporary stability as dissatisfaction with his regime’s long-term corruption, economic monopoly and restrictions on freedom of expression have reached such a point that he quickly changed his policy to carry out structural reforms.

In other words, it seems that Ilham Aliyev is not going to turn the parliamentary elections into an opportunity to allow public participation in solving the pressing issues. Public participation in governance through parliament is important to prevent a chaotic uprising in Azerbaijan. By branding opposition parties such as the Popular Front, Musavat and others as “traitors”, Aliyev has proved that he is not sincere in his so called “reforms” agenda, which is more than an attempt to prolong survival.

The Republican Alternative Party and its leader Ilgar Mammadov think that the parliamentary elections are vital and the president should not be afraid of them. Ilgar Mammadov advocates for democratic parliamentary elections, making it clear that if there is political will to solve the challenges the country is facing, the REAL Party is ready to help the process. However, Mr Mammadov does not exclude leading peaceful protests if the elections are falsified. Therefore, post-election moves matter. Standing firm and getting the public to mobilise to defend their rights against the authoritarian regime will be crucial. It is difficult to say now whether Mr Mammadov can do this. President Aliyev’s efforts to terminate the classic opposition forces and their leaders cannot be hidden anymore. All his recent moves remind us of the 1998 pre-election process when his father managed to create a barrier between the opposition and previous establishment groups, preventing any alliance against his rule.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East, including for the website www.astna.biz. I have a Masters' degree in International Politics & Human Rights from City, University of London.
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