Democratic elections and the rule of superior intelligence
I am here in Baku, Azerbaijan, as an election observer.
I will not pretend I did not seize the offer because I hoped to see some of the sites where Ali & Nino—the star-favored, certainly not star-crossed lovers of Kurban Said’s national epic of Azerbaijan by that name. This is where the romantic pair played out their privileged passion and life. I walked the Old City, 2,000 years old, where they crossed paths. He courted her with a Muslim lord’s proud formality and sensuality. She responded with the forwardness of “a Jewish princess,” so to speak. She is the only child of an Orthodox Christian oil tycoon. They marry naturally; he is an aristocrat and she is rich. Both remain spoiled children of fortune even when their fortune turns ill and when they are as ever invariably saved by their courage and lordly connections, he returns to Azerbaijan because the greatest pleasure of a Muslim is to die fighting in a hopeless cause. Reminds me of Malik, the new Saladin. Enough of that.
I am at the meeting of the 10 candidates for president. The shoo-in winner is the incumbent. He is running for a third term. The one-year term limit in the constitution was set aside some time ago by a national referendum.
He was elected after his father, Heydar Aliyev, the Ataturk of Azerbaijan. His proud face, piercing blue eyes, and commanding presence radiate even from photographs.
He was Gorbachev’s closest rival for ultimate power in the Soviet state. Had he won, the Soviet Union may have stayed intact and achieved progress with order. Or so I think.
He was KGB and a favorite of Andropov who was also KGB, as many of the best rulers of the breakaway states of the former Soviet empire were. The KGB was a superb school of leadership. The CIA has had more modest success; a notable exception being the underrated George Herbert Walker Bush: World War II hero, CIA chief and the man who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.
He stamped out the banditry that followed the independence of most ex-Soviet socialist republics and quadrupled the country’s GDP. His son has since quadrupled or quintupled that achievement. More is promised and Azerbaijan has the wealth and as important the political will of its, I suppose we can call them, dynastic presidents.
Azerbaijan is the land of fire where the oil is a foot beneath the surface of the ground and in many places bubbled up unbidden and spontaneously ignited.
The provenance of the Persian fire religion is traced to this natural feature. Baku’s most famous architectural monument is a trio of high post-modernist buildings shaped like flames that are lit bright red at night.
The rest of the capital is Paris Lite, shall we say, for the novel of Kurban Said records one example a sheep herder on whose pasture oil burst into the surface. He commissioned a French architect to recreate a French chateau but with modern American amenities and then lived in a shed beside it. Not so improbable because the old founder of the Oberoi hotel chain lives in a cottage on the vast grounds of his son’s mansion. Asked why, he answered: I did not have a rich father.
Baku was a deliberate recreation of Paris. Since independence, the government has restored the old buildings in perfect taste.
Its prosperity and cosmopolitanism lasted some half a century after the Russian czars beat back the Turks and absorbed it as a province. The end came with the Russian Revolution: a brief republican experiment, followed by a German Turkish invasion, a British victory and its final occupation by the victorious Red Army.
Hitler invaded Russia to break the Allied embargo of Fortress Europe. If his Panzers had reached Baku, the war would have been prolonged though I have no doubt the Americans would have won the race for the atom bomb and atomized Berlin.
Now I am here as an election observer and sitting at a meeting with some of the presidential candidates.
The first to speak is a historian who teaches at Baku University, a member of parliament, and the third most powerful man in government. He is short, balding, has a soft face but he wears an intelligent expression which appears to reflect his intelligent mind. He represents the incumbent.
Asked why the president is represented in debates rather than appearing in public, he said, there is no law compelling any candidate to personally appear in these debates and they, like the president, can decline to appear and send a representative. I might add at their own political peril.
Asked why all election posters are removed and all traces of political propaganda erased 24 hours before the polls open when this curtails access to information about the candidates, especially unknown ones, he said: Well, nobody gets famous in one campaign period. As a historian, he pointed to Eisenhower, who saved the Western World from Nazism, who was more famous before he was elected than after.
And he is right. If you want to run for elective office, don’t expect equal access to media laws to give you the popularity you have not earned.
Do something with your life that is useful to your country.
Be a smart, superb and fearless writer, not a shoe licker like most of our journalists. The greatest German central banker, Otto Pohl, was a journalist. Be a great scientist at MIT or Princeton and win the Noble prize for physics or medicine. Be an indefatigable health and social worker or even a world famous painter or sculptor, or an actor or actress whose thespian skills have brought honor to their country.
Or be a great athlete. Like Manny Pacquiao? No.
An American observer told me he knew of Manny. But he did not mean someone like that. He had in mind a man whose name he could not recall. I have: Bradley, of whom John McPhee wrote that he had A Sense of Where He Is. At any point in a game, Bradley knew precisely where he stood in the basketball court while his Rhodes Scholar mind calculated precisely how much power from his hand and what exact turn of his wrist will drop the ball neatly in the basket.
First, the incumbent’s representative explained the election process which is manual and easily carried out with a population of 9 million and just 4 million voters casting ballots in some 125 precincts.
He said most media is privately owned. But, I thought, like ours, cannot be stopped from favoring the incumbent and his candidates.
Then he said he would speak as the incumbent’s representative.
After giving the economic history of the new republic and its astounding GDP rate (25%) uncontested even by Western media.
Being an ex-Soviet state, which is to say Second World and not Third, and therefore with intelligently commanded economies, as well as highly educated populations, this claim is probably true. Singapore works because it started and essentially remains a socialist state.
I remarked to my companion that ex-Soviet leaders seem to be mature, sober, not prone to hysteria, are never clueless and don’t look it. They never leave their mouths open. Most are published specialists in their fields. Indeed the other fellow at the head table is a noted mathematician and also pro-administration.
A spell of Soviet Communism, followed by a spell of more or less democratically ex-KGB leadership, seems not to produce fools for elected leaders unlike say ex-American, British and European colonies with the singular exceptions of India and Singapore.
Freedom does not appear to be a good school for intelligent government. Sure, the record on post-Soviet honesty is mixed, as some if not most ex-Soviet republics are notoriously corrupt and occasionally brutal but they always serious and intelligent. No one stupid is ever elected or makes it to the top.
A spell of Soviet Communism apparently also produces an intelligent electorate; if not invariably, at least more often than liberal democracy.
I am now listening to a self-appointed candidate who has however qualified to run by producing 40,000 signatures out of a voting population of 400,000.
Again the element of seriousness is present though also a touch of hysteria for he is a young man. But equally evident is the glaring lack of superficiality. His program is to add more intellectual openness to the current regime’s achievements and to achieve, given the country’s natural wealth, an even greater rate of growth. But the mathematician at the table had told us that the youth are for the incumbent because he launched a program to send 5,000 Azerbaijan students abroad for higher studies, all at government expense. Public health care is good and free.
The candidate has just made a mistake. He said, in answer to one question, that he has not the philosophical mind of an Aristotle who will venture to answer any question, such as the import of Snowden’s actions. This modesty is unprecedented among the ruling class here—not in the Philippines—and those who aspire to rise into them.