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Opinion | After disappointing elections a new way forward for Azerbaijan’s opposition? 

20 February 2020

After disappointing elections, Azerbaijan’s opposition must reckon with the failure of an ‘elections only’ strategy. Lessons learned during the electoral campaign will be crucial. 

Snap parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan are over. According to the OSCE Observation Mission, the elections ‘lacked genuine competition and choice’.

Azerbaijani social media is overflowing with discussion over numerous videos that show blatant electoral fraud. In light of such blatant vote-rigging, two questions disturb the minds of many in the opposition: was participation in the elections the right decision? And what should their next steps be?  

Against politics

Two opposition blocs, ‘The Movement’ and ‘The Real Republicans’, along with the opposition Musavat Party decided to participate in the snap elections. Meanwhile, the opposition Popular Front Party decided to boycott the vote. 

Despite the undemocratic disappointment of the election, it was still an important experience for those parts of the opposition that chose to participate. Because of the open public campaigning, they had a chance, for the first time ever, to come face to face with ‘real people’ who seldom participate in public discourse.  

With regard to the pedagogical value of public campaigning during this short pre-election period, the importance of door-to-door canvassing cannot be overstated. It allowed volunteers to encounter reality in person and disabused them of the illusions fostered by living in activist and opposition bubbles of discourse. 

No matter what arguments or theoretical ideas door-to-door volunteers had, they saw firsthand that an electoral mobilisation of the so-called ‘ordinary people’ is almost impossible. 

Most people believe that political ambition renders a person automatically untrustworthy. Nor do they think that elections can bring about any real change. They have no love for the ruling authorities, but they do not like the opposition either. 

Formal politics of all sorts are, in effect, a poisoned chalice. 

Instead, people are focused on bread-and-butter issues, on their daily sufferings. They are frustrated and they know that something is wrong with the system they live in. They may raise their voice to address some very direct specific issue that affects their daily life, but they will not go out and vote. 

Before the election, most of us were aware of the public scepticism and the Azerbaijani population’s naïve nihilism. But the election confirmed it to an extent we were not ready for. But, despite the shock, it must be repeated that real-life experience is always better than just a gut feeling, especially when considering what to do in the future. 

Another important development that grew out of the election was the new solidarities and connections that opposition communities developed with each other. 

“The Movement” block, which consisted of progressive candidates, was an opportunity for activists to work together for common goals despite the differences between candidates. 

This was especially apparent after the elections, when different independent and opposition candidates put aside their differences and banded together to raise the problem of electoral fraud. 

Lost Illusions

A protest against electoral fraud took place on Sunday, in front of the Central Election Committee (CEC). The rally gathered a small number of participants as was expected. The majority of protesters were those who have a party or activist identity. 

In other words, most people did not have any willingness to revolt and ‘defend their votes’, as the electoral opposition had previously proposed.

The lack of popular showing on both the election day and the following protest should be analysed in terms of representation, or rather, the lack thereof. 

In an authoritarian state like Azerbaijan, the politicisation of the masses themselves is impossible due to their marginalisation vis-à-vis formal political structures resulting from a lack of the electoral culture. In such cases, full reliance on the electoral strategy is a mistake. 

How after all, can one act as a possible elected representative when the elections are fraudulent and the public you claim to represent does not believe they can actually be represented? 

To go a little deeper, it can be argued that the nucleus of the problem of electoral politics can be located in the nature of the bubble that members of the opposition, including their leaders, live in.

This bubble is social media, a social media that is an imperfect reflection of the actual, existing society —  filled with discordant voices, debate, agreement, and a general many-voiced cacophony. It seems that it is a 1-to-1 representation of the world.  But it is not. 

It is instead a self-selecting illusion, that by virtue of algorithms only mimics the dynamics of mass politicisation and popular support. It delivers the dopamine hit of having your posts liked, but cannot deliver votes or attendees to protests.

Lessons for the Future

All existing branches of the opposition need to sit and reflect on the post-electoral future. However, without also having a plan for future  cooperation, these reflections would be fruitless. 

The rivalry between oppositional actors, especially between leaders (and the leader-centric nature of parties) is the main obstacle to the emergence of a broad coalition, or at the very least, the possibility of successfully working together.

Azerbaijan has no elections slated for the next five years. This gives the opposition some breathing room. They should seek a new strategy towards mobilising the public and take the time to listen to their claims and demands carefully.

They should also consider the possibility that one potential way to build confidence and inspiration among the public before a major mobilisation is to actually accomplish some workable unity between opposition forces. 

This election is incontrovertible proof that it is time to abandon the ‘elections only’ narrative. Along with it, it is worth trying to go beyond the leader-centric approach. 

It is clear that no one leader is seen as a  ‘representative of the people’. Instead, a strategy should be adopted of a democratic, inclusive, and pluralist form of representation. Of course, it would still be difficult under the current conditions of depoliticisation in Azerbaijan, but it has a greater chance of success.  

Right now opposition forces in Azerbaijan have little public support. They must band together and undertake the long-term and gruelling task of building it. But they must start now, for they are already in the regime’s cross-hairs. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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