Azerbaijani citizens will hold a constitutional referendum on March 18 that may well seal the fate of the country's democratization process. The key amendment up for public approval concerns the lifting of presidential term limits.
In all, voters will decide on 41 amendments to 29 articles of Azerbaijan's constitution, touching on issues ranging from the right to privacy to freedom of media. Amendments with a majority "yes" vote will be adopted, provided that 25 percent of Azerbaijan's more than 4.9 million voters take part in the referendum.
Most domestic and international attention has focused on provision on removing presidential term limits. Critics say the amendment, if approved, will effectively guarantee that the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, son of the late president Heydar Aliyev, will become president-for-life.
"This referendum has only one purpose . . . to perpetuate the Aliyevs' power," declared Isa Gambar, head of the opposition Musavat Party in a March 14 meeting with voters in Sumgayit, not far from Baku. "I call on you to take a break on March 18. Do not go to the polling stations and say 'No' to the Aliyevs and their lawlessness by this action."
In a March 16 statement, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which monitors member-states' constitutional changes, posited that the lack of restraints on President Aliyev's current powers means that "unlimited re-election of a President is a step back, in terms of democratic achievements." Belarus is the only European presidential republic that does not limit the number of consecutive terms.
Term limits, the commission continued, are "meant to limit the risk of negative consequences for democracy arising from the fact that a same person has the possibility of occupying the presidency for an excessive period of time."
The fact that the proposed amendment poses the question in terms of extending the president's term "during a state of war" further complicates the issue, the commission wrote. Azerbaijan officially considers itself to be at war with Armenia over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
One senior Yeni Azerbaijan Party parliamentarian, however, countered that the Venice Commission's opinions carry little weight. "The Azerbaijani Constitution is being amended under transparent conditions. Azerbaijan took European countries' constitutions into account while amending the constitution," stated Ali Huseynov, chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament's State Institutions and Legal Policy Committee, on March 16. "We did not consider it necessary to apply to the [Council of Europe's] Venice Commission," the APA news agency reported Huseynov as saying.
One international law expert criticized the referendum process as illegitimate. "It started one month after the presidential elections, but during the election neither the main candidate [Ilham Aliyev], nor his representatives announced their intention to amend the constitution," argued Erkin Gadirli. "It is dishonest towards voters who, as it seems, voted for a candidate who had hidden plans."
The Constitutional Court's decision to hold the referendum was made on President Aliyev's birthday, December 24, he continued, terming the ruling "absolutely politically motivated." The high court's eight judges, who are presidential appointees, "became hostages of a situation that affects their independence," Gadirli said. Under the proposed amendment, the court would decide when the president's term can be extended.
Meanwhile, both the Venice Commission and the non-governmental organization Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center have taken issue with the lack of public discourse surrounding the referendum.
The Azerbaijani public is "very little" informed about the vote, noted the EMDS Center on Mach 15; a situation that the NGO attributes to "the absence of freedoms of assembly, speech and press." Violations observed during the run-up to the referendum range from arrests of anti-referendum activists to the removal of anti-referendum posters from public places, the group said.
The Venice Commission noted that political groups have regretted "the insufficient consultation" which has taken place before the vote and "the limited" public discussion on the pros and cons of the various amendments proposed.
The lack of debate was among the reasons cited by the opposition parties and non-governmental organizations for voters to boycott the referendum, as announced on March 10. The 28-day campaign period was not adequate for disseminating any different point of view about the proposed amendments, they argued.
The government, however, is shrugging off all criticism. "The opposition does not have any alternative opinions or concrete position regarding the referendum. Therefore, they decided to boycott the referendum," stated Elnur Aslanov, head of the presidential administration's Policy Analysis and Information Department. "It shows the opposition's indecision and lack of scruples. Their decision will not have any impact on the results of the referendum."
Countered Lala Shovkat, leader of the Liberal Party, on March 14: "The constitution is not a suit that everyone can destroy and alter for himself."
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.