Elections in Azerbaijan: Insights from the Supply-Demand Model of Democratization

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In this article, I argue that Azerbaijan’s democracy deficit is at least partly determined by both the undersupply of civil liberties by political institutions as well as by weak citizen demand for liberal democracy. In the supply-demand model of democratization (Inglehart and Welzel 2005), a stable democracy can prosper when both the institutional supply of democracy (the introduction of multiparty elections, guarantees of civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly) by state elites and its citizens’ demand for democracy (that is how much citizens value freedoms) are sufficiently high. When both the supply and the demand are weak -- namely when the electoral process is tilted toward the incumbent and civil liberties are restricted, and the majority of people fails to embrace democratic norms and institutions  -- then the system cannot be described as a democracy and the prospects for democratization in such a society are bleak  (see Table 1). While the supply side has been somewhat (over)emphasized in most extant scholarship and expert commentary, the demand side remains an under-researched topic. Civic culture consisting of norms of solidarity, trust, tolerance and concern with community affairs is required for active civic engagement and political participation. Some evidence presented in this article shows that civic culture is almost non-existent in Azerbaijan. Instead, the concept of “amoral familism” coined by Edward Banfield (1958) for post-war Southern Italy whose citizens emphasized materialistic benefits of the nuclear family is better suited to capture the essence of Azerbaijani political cultural values. Individuals with strong family ties are less likely to engage in political activities let alone actively push for democracy. 

Weak Supply of Democracy: The April 2018 Elections

Ex ante uncertainty, namely the likelihood that leaders in the opposition who are allowed to compete have the chance to win office, is an ultimate test of whether the system is a democracy or not (see Alvarez et al. 1996). Judged against this standard, the early presidential elections held on April 11, 2018 in Azerbaijan lacked the degree of uncertainty regarding who the winner will be. Predictably, the incumbent leader Ilham Aliyev, who has been in office since 2003, won a landslide 86 percent of the vote. This will be his fourth term in office.

The remaining 14 percent was shared between the other seven candidates each receiving somewhere between 0.7 and 3.1 percent of the vote. Four of them are current members of parliament and are largely pro-government: Araz Alizadeh (Social Democratic Party), Gudrat Hasanguliyev (Whole Popular Front Party), Faraj Guliyev (National Revival Movement Party), Zahid Oruj (self-nominated). The other three hopefuls hailed from various vaguely-oppositional organizations: Razi Nurullayev (Frontiers’ Initiative Group), Hafiz Hajiyev (Modern Equality / Müasir Müsavat Party), and Sardar Jalaloglu (Democratic Party).  

The traditional opposition parties and political blocs – notably Müsavat Party and the National Council of Democratic Forces led by the well-respected historian Jamil Hasanli – decided to boycott the snap election. The two major opposition parties organized a protest rally on March 10 in Baku which was authorized by the authorities. It is likely that the permission to hold a rally freely was  granted to prevent “a snowballing of discontent into large-scale protests across the country” (EIU Forecast 2018). Small-scale opposition protests do not, however, pose a serious challenge to the governing elites, and the risk of such protests spiraling into a country-wide demonstration is presently low.

The imprisoned leader of an emerging opposition party (ReAl) was kept in jail which prevented him from running. Oppositional activity is legally granted, but in reality criticism of governmental policies is not much tolerated and the most die-hard opponents are subjected to the wrath of state coercive apparatus. Activists who cross the government’s “red lines” are routinely detained in arbitrary use of law.

The space of oppositional activity and activism has shrunk over the years imposing high costs on dissenting political engagement. Opposition forces can be roughly divided into “traditional” groups, associated with the Popular Front movement and the short-lived Elchibey presidency in the early 1990s, and the “new” forces, represented by groups such as ReAl whose leaders are now in their forties. Traditional opposition groups who have unsuccessfully rallied against the governing elite for decades are in disarray. The vast majority of younger generation tends to be politically apathetic; perhaps only a small minority among younger cohorts are politically engaged including increasingly on social media platforms (see Pearce 2014). ReAl is trying to tap into this generational shift – assuming younger people are culturally distinct from older age cohorts. The leaders of ReAl advocate for the gradual transition to European-style parliamentarism, rule-of-law state and free-market economy (Fuller 2018). Although both traditional groups and ReAl are ideologically center right with strong nationalist undertones, there is a tendency (or temptation) to rely on personality-based politics and catch-all tactics. Perhaps, this is understandable given the context of prevalent materialistic values and the persistence of nonmeritocratic patron-client relationships as a key mechanism of upward social mobility. In such a context, appealing to ideology may put a politician at a risk of losing potential votes. The extent to which these groups will be able to make progress on campaigning and attracting widespread support is conditional upon the presence (or absence) of freedoms for civic and political activities and on their leaders’ capabilities to devise and deploy a credible alternative program of change. 

A series of constitutional amendments adopted the year earlier strengthened the powers of the president. The amendments extended the presidential term from five to seven years. Newly added article 103 established the new office of First Vice-President (VP) and (two) Vice Presidents appointed by the president. This reconfigured the order of succession in case of his resignation or inability to exercise powers putting the First VP, not the Prime Minister as was envisaged before the amendment was introduced, as the second person in line of succession.

The revised constitution does not mention the scope of duties of the First VP, neither does it specify the nature of the relationship between the First VP and the Prime Minister. The latter oversees the Cabinet of Ministers and is formally approved by the parliament although the lack of vote of confidence significantly limits the power of the legislature to serve as a check on the prime minister. The office of the first VP adds a new (third) institutional layer in the already bulky pyramid of executive authority (with concomitant overlaps in responsibilities) consisting of the President (aided by the Presidential Apparatus) and the Prime Minister (plus the Cabinet of Ministers). Some interpreted these changes as the move to gradually dismantle the institution of the premier (and the cabinet of ministers) – which in the current state seems institutionally redundant – with the subsequent transfer of its powers to vice presidency. 

In February 2017, the president appointed his spouse, Mehriban Aliyeva, who is also the deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan (YAP) Party, as first vice president. In another decree following his reelection in April the president appointed his international affairs advisor Novruz Mammadov as a new prime minister. In this position he replaces the octogenarian figure Artur Rasizade. The composition of the new cabinet includes several representatives from a younger cohort.

The international observer mission led by OSCE/ODIHR concluded that the 2018 election “lacked genuine competition” (ODIHR/OSCE Final Report, July 18, 2018). Prohibitive legislation curtails expression of critical views. New Article 148-1 added to the Criminal Code in November 2016   establishes criminal liability for anonymous defamation or insult on the Internet (Council of Europe 2017). Several news websites critical of the government, such as Radio Free Europe and Azadliq Daily, are blocked.

President Aliyev’s new term in office coincides with relatively lower oil prices, the decline in oil production and the dwindling oil-related revenues. This will put the Azerbaijani leadership in a tough fiscal situation. Shrinking oil rents that have for years undergirded the social contract will have to be substituted by new sources of fiscal revenue for the state. The government will be pushed hard to implement serious reforms to stimulate non-oil private business and attract foreign investment. We already see that some incremental changes toward this end are under way in the services sectors, especially tourism, food, real estate development, and construction. However, whether this sort of economic reforms will be accompanied with greater political liberalization remains to be seen.

Weak Demand for Democracy

Scholars of modernization theory have argued that democracy can sustainably exist only in societies where cultural values privilege individual autonomy and political freedoms. As Inglehart and Welzel (2005: 114) point out, “Intergenerational value changes reflect historic changes in a society’s existential conditions” which are, in turn, linked with socio-economic changes.. In oil-dependent states like Azerbaijan, the growing oil revenues have little positive impact on the enhancement of emancipative values that emphasize self-expression values, individual autonomy and freedom of choice. Instead, the oil-dependent economy propelled patron-client structures and reinforced the close-knit nepotistic networks in which political support is exchanged for material goods, and public sector jobs are granted based on personal or family connections.

At a  deeper level, political values are transmitted from family and other social institutions such as neighborhoods and schools. Azerbaijanis display strong family ties, and family stands out as the most trusted social institution. In a survey conducted in 2012, 97% of Azerbaijanis stated that they trusted their family members “a lot” (Liles 2012). Understandably, families are trusted because they are the first order of reference in societies where social safety nets are not yet formally institutionalized like in Azerbaijan. On the other hand, strong family ties may foster obedience and conformism hindering the development of civic culture attitudes and discouraging participation in civic or community-level organizations – the phenomenon first observed by Edward Banfield in his study of Southern Italy.   

In contrast to amoral familism, citizens in genuinely democratic societies are imbued with civic values. Survey evidence suggests extremely low levels of commitment to civic participation in Azerbaijan  Using data from the World Values Survey (2018) based on the aggregate indices developed by Welzel (2013) I demonstrate the weak demand side of democracy in Azerbaijan. On the Emancipative Values Index (running from minimum 0 to maximum 1.0) that captures the extent to which people “appreciate a life free from external domination”, Azerbaijan has a score of 0.34 which puts it on par with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Iran (Sweden has the highest score of 0.73).

On gender equality, one of the core components of Emancipative Values, it is clear that Azerbaijanis are lagging behind Western societies and are more patriarchal compared to their Caucasian neighbors. When asked whether men should be prioritized in getting a scarce job, 79 percent of Azerbaijanis endorsed the male-dominant view and only 9 percent disagreed (56 percent Armenians, 46 percent Georgians, and only 16 percent Germans agreed with the statement while 34 percent Armenians, 44 percent Georgians, and 60 percent Germans disagreed) (see Table 2).

Social Movement Activity Index measures the respondents’ engagement in any social movement activity, including petitions and peaceful demonstrations. On this scale from 0 to 1.0, Azerbaijan has a score of 0.4 which puts Azerbaijan at the bottom of the list with one of the lowest scores next to Egypt and Malaysia..

On civic engagement index, Azerbaijan has a score of 0.04 putting it in the same group as Russia and Turkey. For political engagement more specifically, Azerbaijan has a score of 0.06 which is on the same level as Latvia and Russia.. The lowest level of self-reported political participation (at 0.01) is reported by Uzbek respondents. This is consistent with the generally low levels of formal associational membership across the post-Soviet space. Low civic engagement reduces the ability of a society to tackle collective action problems and achieve desired socio-economic outcomes. Strong political participation and high civic engagement are important preconditions for democratization. 

Despite low civic engagement and political apathy, Azerbaijani citizens generally have (or had in 2011) favorable views on democracy although we do not know what meaning they attach to the word “democracy”. On the Democratic Desire Index measuring the extent to which people wish their country to be governed democratically, Azerbaijanis were generally pro-democratic obtaining the score of 0.78 score. However, a recent study reported a drastic decline in mass democracy support from 60 percent in 2010 to 28% in 2016 which likely to have been driven by the decline in oil prices (around 2015) and the tightening of the government control of civil society (see Sadigov and Guliyev 2018). While the factors of fear and self-censorship cannot be completely ruled out, empirical evidence suggested that in Azerbaijan popular support for democracy is dependent on individuals’ social status. When the oil prices fell, democracy support was more likely to come from the individuals who were better educated and urban. However, encouragingly, even though pro-democratic views registered a sharp decline, support for undemocratic alternatives (such as military rule) remained low (at 10-11% in 2010 and 2016).


The April 2018 elections indicated weak supply of democracy. The electoral arena was tilted in favor of the sitting president. Opposition parties were allowed to compete, but their chances of winning were slim, so they boycotted the vote. Would opposition parties score a victory had they been put in a more competitive environment? We do not know. What is clear is that weak civic engagement and low predisposition to self-expression values produce the kind of political culture that is unfavorable to liberal democracy. All this will make it hard for opposition groups to mobilize pro-democracy support especially at a moment when democracy seems to be in retreat worldwide.  

Perhaps, the general acceptance of the election result by the majority of the electorate should not come as a surprise given the discussion of cultural attitudes above. Confirmatory attitudes that prevailed indicate an even bigger problem facing Azerbaijani pro-democratic forces – passive citizenry, weak civic engagement, and deep-seated values of holding one’s own family above all else.

There is both good news and bad news for policy makers.

The bad news is that cultural shifts are long-term processes that take generations to take effect. Absent change in the existential context cultural shifts are implausible. In the specific Azerbaijani context, the political economy of oil characterized by rent seeking and the neopatrimonial nature of state bureaucracy (in which the relationship of personal loyalty and dependence pervade formal bureaucratic structures) prevented the socio-economic changes from taking place. A cultural shift requires the prior transition to a more diversified economic base which is yet to come. The [sort of] good news is that the exposure of Azerbaijani students to Western education and professional ethos though still limited in its reach might be one potential conduit for accumulating valuable stocks of pro-democratic self-expression values and social capital. Of course, this learning effect is not uniform. For example, some Western-educated graduates return to accept jobs in public and private sectors where they serve to enhance and perpetuate the existing structures of patronage, loyalty and conformism. On the positive side, there are also those among Western-educated who embraced the values of freedom and seek to contribute to democratic development at the workplace and society at large.


Alvarez, M., Cheibub, J.A., Limongi, F., Przeworski, A. “Classifying Political Regimes”. Studies in Comparative International Development 31 :2 (1996): 3-36.

Banfield, E. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Free Press, New York, 1958.

Council of Europe. Analysis of Azerbaijani Legislation on Freedom of Expression, Analytical Report, November 2017, https://rm.coe.int/azerbaijan-analysis-of-legislation-on-freedom-of-expression-december-2/16808ae03d

EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit). “Anti-government protests in Baku”, March 14, 2018, http://country.eiu.com/Azerbaijan/ArticleList/Updates/Politics ; short URL: https://tinyurl.com/yahg48co

Fuller, L. “Released Azerbaijani Opposition Figure Announces Return to Active Politics”, CivilNet.Am, 18 September 2018, https://www.civilnet.am/news/2018/09/19/Released-Azerbaijani-Opposition-Figure-Announces-Return-to-Active-Politics/345063

Inglehart, R., and Welzel, C. Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Liles, T. “Trust and Agency in Azerbaijan: Personal Relationships versus Civic Institutions”, CRRC Blog, November 13, 2012, http://crrc-caucasus.blogspot.com/2012/11/trust-and-agency-in-azerbaijan-personal.html

ODIHR/OSCE, International Election Observation Mission, Republic of Azerbaijan – Early Presidential Election, 11 April 2018, Final Report: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/azerbaijan/388580?download=true

Pearce, K. “Two Can Play at That Game: Social Media Opportunities in Azerbaijan for Government and Opposition”, Demokratizatsiya 22: 1 (2014): 39-66.

Sadigov, T. and Guliyev, F. “Eroding Support for Democracy in Azerbaijan? Context and Pitfalls in Survey Research.” Caucasus Survey 6:2 (2018): 87-112.

Welzel, C. Freedom Rising. Cambridge University Press, 2013 (Online Appendix) https://www.cambridge.org/files/8613/8054/8416/FreedomRising_OA.pdf

World Values Survey, Dataset “WVS Wave 1 to 6 Key Aggregates”, 2018 [last accessed October 7, 2018] http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSEventsShow.jsp?ID=367



Table 2. Gender Equality in Employment, %

Question wording:

“Do you agree, disagree or neither agree nor disagree with the following statement?:

“When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”


Note: Selected samples: Armenia 2011 (N=1,002), Azerbaijan 2011 (N=1,100), Georgia 2014 (N=1,100), Germany 2013 (N=2,046); Variable number in the wave-6 version of the WVS questionnaire is V46.