We take a look at last year’s presidential elections, and what they could mean for the region

Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia all held elections in 2018. Some were planned, others were snap elections or maneuvered as shrewd political moves. In sum, the population of the Caucasus countries totals over to 16.5 million people. The region is an important push point for western normative policies, energy, and bridge between other countries in the wider region. Georgia and Armenia serve as barometers for democracy development and cooperation. The lead-up to the elections, results, and reactions tell us where each country is and what they envision for their near (and distant) futures.

Azerbaijan: Holding its Status Quo

Azerbaijan kicked things off with a presidential election in April. This was six months ahead of schedule. The Azerbaijani Constitution established the third Wednesday of October as the constant date for presidential elections. But the incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, called in February for snap elections. President Aliyev’s decision to move the country’s vote was more a mandate than a benign proposition, and elections were rescheduled accordingly. In a wholly expected outcome, incumbent President Aliyev won another term, with 86.02% of the vote.

The election was the country’s first from the 2016 Constitutional Referendum, the new terms of which extend the president’s term from five years to seven years in office. Mr. Aliyev has been president since 2003, serving since his father, Heydar, passed away. The last elections, held in 2013, had a dispute between representatives of international election observers about the freedom and fairness surrounding the outcome. 2018 had no such waffling: OSCE monitored the election, and were unsatisfied with the conduct. Notwithstanding the hurried timing—a politically convenient way for President Aliyev to disarm any potential opposition—the OSCE took issue with ballot stuffing, lack of transparency, and “other irregularities.”

Heydar (left) and Ilham Aliyev

When Aliyev first came to power, he received 75.38% of the vote, and election observers were not satisfied; but in subsequent elections in 2008 and 2013, election observers were mollified, at the least, and praised Azerbaijan on its progress. Nevertheless, Aliyev won with even higher numbers: 87.34% and 84.5%. So his 2018 election is neither his highest percentage—that prize is awarded to the 2008 election—nor his most contested election, which was his first, in 2003—where he got his lowest percentage of the vote. Election monitors and Azerbaijani politics continue to run around each other, with both missing the mark. This trend is not likely to change by the next election, in 2025. President Aliyev is the only leader in the former Soviet Union to directly inherit a leadership position from a parent—his father. Aliyev is still young, but it will be important to watch how he maintains his power base and plans for succession. Until then, more of Aliyev means more of the same for Azerbaijan.

Georgia: Bitter Division Amidst Democracy

Azerbaijan’s neighbor to the west, Georgia, also had presidential elections scheduled for October. Except unlike Azerbaijan, Georgia’s presidential elections were actually held as planned. And, also different to Azerbaijan, the presidential incumbent, Giorgi Margvelashvili, was not up for re-election because his single five-year term was up, and he was not permitted to run again. The backdrop of Georgian election was an overabundance of choice and a bitter rivalry between Saakashvili’s United National Movement party and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream. Neither politician was up for election—both work from behind the scenes—but critics saw the election as a proxy battle for power struggle between the two. Salome Zurabishvili, the Georgian Dream candidate, came away as the victor in the second round runoff, with just under 60% of the vote. The UNM candidate, Grigol Vashadze, won just over 40%. While the final vote was not contested, and Vashadze accepted Zurabishvili’s victory, the lead-up to the vote was hotly fought, with mud-slinging and accusations of wrongdoing on both sides.

Zurabishvili’s victory guarantees Georgian Dream stays in power, become the longest tenure of a single party in Georgia since the country’s independence. The presidential position in Georgia is largely a figurehead role of representation, and most of the power rests with parliament, in which Georgian Dream has a super-majority of 114 out of 150 seats. Parliamentary elections are in 2020, and will be telling of where Georgia stands as a democracy and where Georgian Dream stands as a party. If the 2018 presidential election was a standoff between Georgian Dream and UNM, then, technically, UNM lost. But as an overall party mandate, Georgian Dream is in a weak position. The country is starkly divided in a way that is less revealing in a general presidential election but that can show in regional and district breakdowns of a parliamentary election.

Salome Zurabishvili

Georgia’s foreign policy is unlikely to change under the new president. There is little that Georgian Dream has undertaken over the years of Margvelashvili’s presidency that deviate from Georgia’s pro-Western, pro-EU, and pro-NATO stance since Saakashvili came to power in 2003. In that way, they have had the same continuity that Azerbaijan has had in that time under a single leader. This election tests—or shows off—Georgia’s democratic credentials. A divided country full of feuding can make policy ineffective and politics alienating, but it also shows that Georgians are taking their opinions seriously and refusing to give either party an outright majority in the presidential election. It remains to be seen whether that will carry through and manifest in two years for parliamentary elections, which could portend a real shift of course.

Armenia: Shoring up the Gains of Revolution

Armenia had a busy 2018. Its Armenian “Velvet Revolution” in early 2018 ushered in a new government and brought a long-standing political party to its knees in protests that garnered international attention. The new kids on the block won—but can they keep their hold on power? The revolutionary leader, Nikol Pashinyan, not a politician by trade but certainly someone who seems to rise to the occasion, bet his “My Step Alliance” could keep momentum. His bet has paid off. Armenia had two elections of note in 2018, one scheduled and one snap.

The snap election has everything and nothing in common with President Aliyev’s similar move in Azerbaijan. The decision came from Paishinyan following his party’s impressive performance in September’s scheduled Yerevan City Council elections. The elections came five months after protesters in Yerevan, lead by Pashinyan, successfully forced members of the ruling Republican Party out of office. In May, Pashinyan himself was elected the new prime minister, with the only opposition to his candidacy coming from the unseated Republican Party. As the new prime minister took office and began to make good on his promises to root out corruption and serve the people, newer and weaker members to the Republican Party began to have a change of heart. My Step was popular with the people, and the Republican Party offered a rapidly diminishing voter base. This was first evidenced in September’s Yerevan City Council election, where My Step Alliance trounced the opposition, winning 57 out of 65 seats. The Republican Party did not win a single seat—a decisive difference from the 2017 election in which they held 42 seats.

Pashinyan wanted to capitalize on that momentum, so he resigned in October to trigger the need for the National Assembly to elect a new prime minister. They were unable to do so, and, as a consequence, snap parliamentary elections—the country’s first ever—were scheduled for December. The lead-up to the vote was an existential crisis for Republican Party members who wanted to stay loyal to the old guard, but knew their chances of winning votes, and thereby staying in power, were better with the popular My Step Alliance. But the hand-wringing of Republican Party members was offset by the upbeat positivity of My Step Alliance and Armenians, who were humming with excitement from the shakeup.

Nikol Pashinyan

The snap election gamble paid off. My Step Alliance emerged the clear leader, taking away 70% of the vote to win 88 out of 132 places in the Armenian Parliament. Mirroring the Yerevan City Council Elections, the Republican Party candidates did not win a single seat. Election monitors praised Armenia for holding free and fair elections.

But there is caution. Some have warned that Armenians have traded one majority regime for another, brighter, newer version. Armenians want results, and the My Step Alliance will need to procure those results to stay in power. While the country has a warm afterglow of peaceful revolution and power change now, there are long months of negotiation, policy, and assessment ahead. The sway of the My Step Alliance promises democracy, and change, but also uncertainty about what that will look like at the ruling and the population level as that takes shape.

Wider Regional Trends: Splintering, Not Converging

It is not really useful to refer to the Caucasus as a general cohesive term except maybe in a geographical sense. There are similarities in each of the countries, but it would be a mistake to draw generalizations about a common trajectory of the region based on their individual domestic performances. Azerbaijan has opted for security and the known in Aliyev—though whether Azerbaijanis had much choice is disputable. But leaders in Russia and the west know what to expect from his regime, as it is the same system they have been working with for nearly three decades.

Georgia has been moving forward and backward with a lurching step, and critics cannot decide whether the country is improving its democracy or backsliding. But it matters little, because despite the change in party leadership, the country’s policy towards Russia, NATO, the EU, and normative goals are all mostly the same. If anything, the tight race demonstrates that Georgians are presented with two strong candidates from whom to choose. And before the winnowing to two candidates, there were many more from whom to choose, showing either scattered attitudes or a willingness to participate.

The biggest wild card is Armenia. One thing seems sure, which is that the ruling Republican Party is out. Right now, Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance is definitely in, but how long will this last? Is the country destined to go down the same path as Georgia’s on-again, off-again relationship with reformist-turned-political enemy Saakashvili? Is the My Step Alliance little more than a new ruling party that will use its newfound power to squash and repress members of the former leadership? Is it populist? A lot of these questions will be answered in bits and pieces over time. Pashinyan could bring a different relationship to Russia or rethink the relationship with the EU and NATO, or he could find himself in lockstep with old policy. He clearly still feels bound by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but even on that hot-button issue, there are hints that Armenia and Azerbaijan might be moving toward peace, which would completely upend the regional status quo.

On the most superficial level, the elections of 2018 tell us that the leaders and populations of each country still puts stock and legitimacy in popular, “democratic” elections, and that is an important indicator for their popular mandates going forward.