All photos by Jacob Balzani Loov
Last week, Azerbaijan held a presidential election. To the surprise of absolutely no one, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev was elected for a third term with 85 percent of the vote. The closest and essentially only opposing candidate, 61-year-old historian Camil Hasanli, received just under six percent. Which is great news, right? Eighty-five percent of voting Azerbaijanis got what they wanted!
Not quite. Aliyev has run the oil-producing, predominantly Shi'ite nation on the Caspian Sea for the last ten years. As the son of former president and KGB strongman Heydar Aliyev—after whom most things in the country are named—he was destined to win. The manner in which the electoral process was executed, the so-called campaign and the overall political context in the country, makes one wonder why they held an election at all.
Camil Hasanli takes part in a electoral TV "debate."
Aliyev's campaign was barely visible. There were no rallies, no advertising, not much of anything that would even tell you an election was taking place. He ran against nine candidates, eight of whom were basically puppets there to create the illusion of a democracy and to heckle the one genuinely alternative candidate, Hasanli, during TV debates that Aliyev didn't even bother showing up to.
I visited Hasanli in his threadbare campaign headquarters miles from the center of the country's capital, Baku. Suited men milled about smoking as Hasanli sat calmly at his desk, leveling the kind of allegations of corruption at the ruling family that would normally land you in jail. Aliyev has been accused by critics of owning multimillion-dollar properties in Dubai and London and keeping offshore bank accounts in Panama—all of which must have necessitated some creative saving and nifty investment, considering his official salary is $223,000. In comparison, the average salary of his fellow citizens remains stalled at around $7,600.
"We won a moral victory here because the opposition could show its strength under the pressure of such an authoritarian regime. Dictators repressing for their own benefit and power are a thing of the past and we all see the situation of Aliyev's close friend, Bashar al Assad," Hasanli said.
When election day arrived, Azerbaijanis rocked the vote, piling into polling stations around the country under the watchful gaze of Heydar Aliyev (most public buildings display his stern portrait). But it wasn't long before local journalists' reports started to flood in, alleging ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and the use of "carousels"—a tactic of driving people around multiple stations so they can cast their vote many times. For some, these stories seemed pretty academic due to a report broken the previous day by Medan TV, a Berlin-based Azeri news outlet critical of the government.
The news revolved around a smartphone app that was being run by the Central Election Commission to ensure people could keep up to date with the latest election news. In an apparent error, the app published results showing Aliyev winning by a landslide before the polls had even opened. The app company, Happy Baku, released a statement saying that they were testing the app using data from opinion polls that "did not have any relation to this year's elections."
Despite Happy Baku's protestations, this didn't do much to instill confidence in Azerbaijan's voting public ahead of the election. Even the foreign observers who'd been called in from the EU and the OSCE had doubts about the election's legitimacy (the OSCE cited irregularities at 58 percent of polling stations). At a press conference given by the latter, pro-regime hacks cried foul, booed, yelled, and even lunged at the OSCE reps, prompting the observer mission chief Tana de Zuleta to walk out, deputy Roberto Montella, to scream at everyone to "sit down and shut up," and for everyone else to roll their eyes and leave.
Not everyone believes the election was a sham. Afterward, government spokesman Elman Abdullayev spoke to me of the "double standards" and "bias" of Azerbaijan's critics. Youth activist Gulsel Safarova explained her voting decision thusly: "I voted for Ilham Aliyev because, in the last ten years, Azerbaijan integrated into the world community, social and economic growth was high, poverty was reduced, democratic reforms were introduced, and we became closer to the European family."
BNP leader, Nick Griffin, rocking the casual tourist vibes at the Ateshgah Fire Temple.
However, another political monitor was in town to offer his views and, strangely enough, took a different view. Thanks to his status as a member of the European Parliament, BNP leader Nick Griffin gets to travel the world monitoring elections. Despite the fact that it was his first time in Azerbaijan, he had what he thought were some interesting insights about the election:
"The system here is far more transparent than back home... They've got a healthy disregard for authority here, you must have seen how they argue with traffic policemen. The election might have been fiddled—perhaps in a 'my dick's very big, I've got a huge majority' kind of way—but even without that, if it happened or not, the president won fair and square on the day."
And on the subject of Azerbaijan's political prisoners?
"Well, there's hundreds of people in prison in Germany because they have a different view on what did or didn't happen in err... the last war."
It's likely that even without the voting-day shenanigans, Aliyev would still have claimed a significant victory, what with his cult of personality and bought media backing him up. Still, the shenanigans did happen, so a rally was swiftly arranged by the opposition. Over 5,000 people turned up—not an insignificant number for Azerbaijan. Speeches were listened to. Anger was expressed.
As the meeting dispersed and the crowds wandered out of the gates past burly, glowering policemen, an ominous hush descended upon the streets. Then, as people began to arrive at the subway station, the cops started to push and shove. All hell broke loose as the two sides fought—fleeing crowds spilled over into the main road, dodging speeding buses. Packs of police began to swoop in and arrest people seemingly at random, launching kicks and raining down punches on men and women alike.
Independent activist Khayyam Mammad told me after the brawl, "Aliyev created here a Mafia regime. Have you seen The Godfather? It's the same here. There are billions of dollars of Azerbaijan's oil wealth in offshore banks and my people are poor."
As improbable as it may sound, Azerbaijan is not a stranger to democracy. In the halcyon days of the declining Russian Empire in 1918, it was the first secular Muslim republic in the world, granting female suffrage before even the UK and the US. Unfortunately, despite its democratic facade, now its politics are closer to those of its recent Soviet past.
In the background are the Azerbaijani people. Some of them hovering near the poverty line and in the shadows of the machinery that should be transforming the country into a Norway of the Caucasus. Instead, the money tends to get spent on vanity projects. Azerbaijan's election provided much material for journalists and analysts, but for the people living in the country, it was just another day in a dictatorship.
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