An Election of One
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President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan recently ordered a snap presidential vote. He was slated to run for reelection next year. Now, for a variety of reasons that highlight the tensions and risks in the former Soviet region in the Caucasus, voters will likely give him a new mandate when they cast ballots on Feb. 7.
Aliyev had three reasons to call the snap vote. First, his popularity is high due to the country’s military victory last year over their nemesis, Armenia, in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethnic Armenians had mostly controlled the region since a separatist war in 1994. But Azerbaijan retook the territory in a short war in 2020.
“Aliyev’s approval ratings had always been high, and they skyrocketed after the victorious military operation in Karabakh,” Farhad Mamedov, an independent political analyst, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. “He is at the peak of his popularity.”
A poll cited in the Trend News Agency, an independent Azeri news outlet, showed that 98.5 percent of respondents supported the 2020 seizure, saying it underscored “a strong national spirit.” Azeri soldiers kicked out around 100,000 Armenians from their homes in the process.
The president has also wielded the levers of power to impose a harsh crackdown on dissent and his critics in the press. Azeri authorities arrested investigative journalists Sevinc Vaqifqizi and Ulvi Hasanli on charges of smuggling foreign currency into the country, for example, charges that human rights activists say are “fabricated and part of a government crackdown on independent media,” wrote the Guardian.
Journalists, dissidents, and others who might challenge Aliyev’s regime are now filling up jails in the country, reported the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. These reporters frequently chase stories that illustrate how the president and his political rivals plunder Azerbaijan’s significant oil and gas wealth while ordinary Azeri citizens suffer economically. The president aims to “completely silence” anyone who might disrupt the Feb. 7 election, the International Press Institute added.
The last reason Aliyev likely called the snap election was because Russian leaders in Moscow are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and therefore have less bandwidth for meddling in the vote, the Associated Press reported. Russia is traditionally Armenia’s ally.
As a result, Azeri voters have little chance to hear anything even slightly negative about the president’s performance. At a recent political debate, for example, Aliyev didn’t appear on stage, but his opponents praised his job record, raising questions, according to Radio Free Europe, about whether they were really challenging him at all.