Analysis: Elevated risk of protests during 2018 Azerbaijan Presidential elections

Azerbaijan will hold snap presidential elections on Wednesday, 11 April, six months ahead of schedule. Read on to discover our analysis of the situation and assessment of the geopolitical risks for travellers in the region.
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azerbaijan flag election 2018
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Azerbaijan will hold snap presidential elections on Wednesday, 11 April, six months ahead of schedule.

Eight candidates will participate in the poll:

  • Ilham Aliyev of the New Azerbaijan Party (incumbent)
  • Gudrat Hasanguliyev of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party
  • Araz Alizade of the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan
  • Faraj Guliyev of the National Revival Movement Party
  • Razi Nurullayev of the Frontists Initiative Group
  • Hafiz Hajiyev of the Modern Musavat Party
  • Zahid Oruj, a self-nominee
  • Sardar Mammadov of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party

It is almost certain that Ilham Aliyev will win.

Why is Azerbaijan holding snap elections?

No official reason has been given for the decree that Aliyev, 56, issued in early February that brought forward the election from 17 October. Presidential adviser Ali Hasanov told state news agency Azartac the poll was moved to avoid interference with high profile domestic and international events later in the year.

This is likely in reference to centenary celebrations of the Azerbaijan People’s Republic, an independent state that existed for nearly two years after the collapse of the Russian Empire.

Criticism of the election

The decision to move the election has been widely criticised by the opposition, who believe it is an attempt to prolong Aliyev’s rule. Opposition figures have accused Aliyev of attempting to prevent the opposition from properly preparing for the poll by shortening the campaign period.

The country’s two main opposition parties, the Musavat Party and the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), have called for a boycott of the vote. Others, including the Azerbaijan Umid Party and the Classic Popular Front Party have also said they will not participate.

Aliyev and his “presidency for life”

The poll comes amid criticism by the opposition over perceived attempts by Aliyev to extend his rule. Aliyev was first elected president in 2003, after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, who had ruled since 1993. He was re-elected for a second and third term in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as rigged.

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In 2009, Aliyev amended the country’s constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, provoking criticism that he intends to be president for life.

A controversial referendum in 2016 saw Azerbaijan adopt constitutional amendments that extended the president’s term in office to seven years from five. The referendum also abolished the minimum age for presidential candidates, which used to be 35, sparking speculation that Aliyev was grooming his son, Heydar, to eventually become president.

Silencing the opposition

Aliyev’s controversial changes to the Azerbaijani constitution have been widely condemned by the opposition, while further afield, international human rights groups have been vocally critical of Aliyev’s government for persecuting independent media outlets, journalists, opposition politicians and activists.

Tactics used to silence opposition reportedly include:

  • Jailing dissenters on trumped-up charges
  • Hacking social media accounts
  • Blocking websites
  • Imposing travel bans

The New York-based media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on 6 April that Azerbaijan’s authorities have cleansed the political landscape of “virtually all formal avenues of expressing dissent” ahead of the upcoming polls. CPJ also noted that some opposition candidates have been either jailed or barred from running in the upcoming presidential election.

Azerbaijani officials have denied such activity.

Risk analysis for the election

Simmering tensions among the opposition have led to a number of protests taking place in the run-up to the poll.

On 10 March, several thousand people protested in Baku to denounce the polls and call for their cancellation in a rally organised by Musavat Party and the NCDF. Baku police estimated that only 1,500 people took part in the rally, while the opposition claims their number reached 10,000.

There is a high likelihood for additional protest activity to occur in the coming days and weeks.

Accusations of voter fraud including ballot-stuffing, multiple voting and intimidation of candidates have been made in previous elections, and similar accusations are likely during this year’s polls. It is highly likely the opposition will take advantage of such accusations to spur protest activity.

Travellers should anticipate heightened security in the coming days and weeks and avoid protests, which may be decisively and aggressively dispersed by police.