Azerbaijan’s Lackluster Election Campaign

The February 7 presidential election in Azerbaijan is likely the most boring in the country’s history due to the public’s disengagement from politics. This disengagement is largely due to incumbent Ilham Aliyev’s popularity and his government’s ramping up repressions.

Apathy has grown since the last election in 2018, with the opposition National Council boycotting the poll and organizing rallies in Baku. Since January 2019, no major protests have been staged in the capital, and only a few dozen people participated in a rally against the ongoing Covid-related closure of the country’s land borders in July 2022. Opposition parties have stopped mobilizing the public for any cause, primarily due to public disengagement from politics, not due to predictability or candidate praise.

Since the summer of 2020, Azerbaijan’s political agenda has been dominated by relations with Armenia and the Karabakh issue. The government’s discourse has grown increasingly anti-Western, with accusations of double standards, pro-Armenian stances, and jealousy. Pro-government media has campaigned against the Council of Europe, which defends Azerbaijani civil society with its Court of Human Rights.

The upcoming election will be monitored by the OSCE, but other European institutions are not invited to monitor the poll. Azerbaijan’s largest opposition parties are boycotting the poll, as they have done for the past two presidential elections and six elections overall. All candidates in the first debate on ITV praised Ilham Aliyev’s role in the Karabakh conflict victory, with one nonpartisan candidate, Zahid Oruj, directly calling on his supporters to vote for the government.

In a recent political debate, nonpartisan candidate Fuad Aliyev urged closer cooperation with Russia and China, while ultra-nationalist Elshad Musayev claimed the Zangezur region as Azerbaijani “historical land.” MP Gudrat Hasanguliyev, head of the Whole Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, criticized the country’s lack of democracy and backed a transition to a parliamentary system. He proposed renaming the country “North Azerbaijan Republic,” implying territorial claims on ethnic Azeri-populated northwestern Iran.

Other candidates offered vague appeals for social rights and improvements in housing and education. However, there was no serious criticism of the government, and the debates were not watched on TV or online. With voter apathy, jailed critics, and a lack of serious challengers, the current government is expected to be easily re-elected.