Azerbaijan: What Is Behind Ilham Aliyev’s Decision to Call Snap Elections?

President Ilham Aliyev

Following President Ilham Aliyev’s request on 5 February, the Central Electoral Commission has rescheduled the presidential election for 11 April instead of 17 October 2018.
In our view, Aliyev’s primary motivation is to further disorient the already fragmented opposition, thus enabling him to secure re-election. The announcement has also caught international monitoring groups by surprise, and they might not be able to send election observers in time, even if they are allowed into Azerbaijan. Notably, moving up presidential elections is not unprecedented in the Caspian region; Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has done so prior to his re-elections.
Other factors that motivated Aliyev include problems surrounding the release of political prisoner Ilgar Mammadov and fear of an economic downturn by October.
Mammadov is the most prominent leader among the splintered opposition. Imprisoned since 2013 on spurious charges of participating in extremist activities, he heads the Republican Alternative Movement (REAL), the most effective opposition movement remaining in Azerbaijan, comprising many lawyers, young activists and internet-savvy citizens.
Notably, Baku is facing potential sanctions from the Council of Europe stemming from Mammadov’s imprisonment, which the European Court of Human Rights has ruled unjust. Azerbaijani officials have long refused to release Mammadov, but they appear to be leaning toward doing so this year. Advancing the elections’ timetable and releasing him after the candidate registration deadline would be a convenient way to avoid European sanctions and prevent Mammadov from running for president. While this is an important factor, we still believe that the change of dates is not solely aimed at Mammadov but instead at disorienting all of the Azerbaijani opposition.
Another factor that may explain the change of date is the ruling clan’s concern that an economic shock, such as another currency devaluation, may occur by October. Jamil Hasanli, chairman of the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), an opposition group, shares this view. He stated, “The deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the country contributes to a steady decline in the authority of the power… Against this background, there is a desire to hold formal elections with the help of the controlled electoral commission and to retain power in the hands of the [ruling] family for another seven years.” Nevertheless, we do not think that economic problems are the main justification for calling snap elections. While the state budget remains in a tough situation, the rise in the global oil price over the last few months should have alleviated such fears.