Azerbaijanis will go the polls on Oct. 9 in an atmosphere marked by a general sense of fear combined with deep apathy. Although there were signs of discontent earlier this year with a riot in a provincial town – as well as occasional unsanctioned opposition rallies in the capital Baku – these expressions of discontent with corruption and power abuse as well as grievances over rising material inequalities did not develop into a sustained popular mobilization movement. Most experts predict that the outcome of the upcoming vote is predetermined in favor of the incumbent president, Illham Aliyev, who has been in office for 10 years already. If elected, this will be his third term – a term made possible through a controversial 2009 constitutional amendment. What makes President Aliyev’s reelection an almost foregone conclusion is a reflection of the resources held by the current regime, the uncompetitive nature of the electoral process, and repression and intimidation used against regime critics.
Azerbaijan is one of the more authoritarian of the post-Soviet states. Like many post-Soviet states, corruption is rampant and permeates all levels of societal life. In 2012, Azerbaijan was ranked 139th most corrupt country in the world on par with Nigeria and Pakistan. It also has one of the most stable regimes in the region, perhaps the third most durable after Nazarbayev’s rule in Kazakhstan and the Niyazov-Berdymukhammedov regime in Turkmenistan, all of which, notably, maintain power through petro-resources.
Due in large part to the continuing oil boom, Azerbaijan has accumulated a great deal of wealth in the last decade. The government’s annual earnings from petroleum exports varied between $15 and $20 billion in recent years. The assets of the state oil fund are now $34 billion. The influx of petrodollars stimulated voracious and visible government expenditure in a short period of time. The ruling family greatly benefits from this wealth personally and politically, as it has created both a patronage system to maintain loyalty as well as given the regime the resources to easily preempt any opposition.
Provision of patronage is crucial because of the weak non-material sources of the regime’s political legitimation. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) lacks a strong non-personalist ideology or a comprehensive program but relies instead on a loose combination of nationalism and a personality cult created during the lifetime and proliferated after the death of the regime’s “founding father” Heydar Aliyev.