Last week, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev called for a national referendum on constitutional changes that political analysts and opposition leaders suspect are aimed at strengthening his grip on the country and ensuring a smooth handover of power to an heir if necessary. Although he has not directly denied the charge, Aliyev claims the proposed amendments meet democracy standards required by Azerbaijan's membership in the Council of Europe.
Prague, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev decreed on 22 June that a referendum on proposed amendments to the 1995 constitution be organized within two months.
Voters in this southern Caucasus country of 8 million people will be required to cast their ballots on 24 August.
Aliev's announcement, read on national television, came hours after the Constitutional Court gave its approval to the proposed changes.
The presidential decree, published the following day in the "Azerbaycan" official newspaper, says that the current constitution needs modifications to match "new realities" implied by Baku's decision to abide by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Azerbaijan ratified this 1950 international treaty on 15 April, 15 months after joining the Council of Europe.
Among the 39 proposed amendments are a number of provisions pertaining to civil liberties. One of these planned changes notably envisages that law enforcement agencies no longer be authorized to use firearms against citizens during emergency rule.
Another modification says that a parliamentary deputy should no longer be automatically stripped of his mandate if her, or his, party is dissolved or disbands. Also, the revised constitution would confirm an earlier parliamentary decision to appoint an ombudsman (human rights commissioner) upon the recommendation of the president.
In comments published earlier this week in the pro-governmental "525th Newspaper" ("525ci Gazet") daily, presidential legal adviser Shahin Aliyev said the amendments would bring the constitution in line with a new law on civil liberties voted recently by the Milli Meclis (national parliament).
Yet, some of the proposed changes have prompted a general outcry among Azerbaijan's generally divided opposition.
The 79-year-old Aliev, who on 19 June reiterated during a tour in his home region of Nakhichevan that he would seek a third term in office when his mandate expires in October next year, wants his fellow citizens to approve changes that lower the number of ballots a presidential candidate must receive to be elected in the first round to 50 percent plus one vote. Under the present constitution, a majority of two-thirds of the votes is required.
More crucially, opposition parties say, Aliyev is also seeking constitutional changes that would make all deputies in the 125-seat Milli Meclis elected under a single-member majority system only.
Azerbaijani voters currently elect their representatives to parliament under a mixed system in which 75 percent of deputies are chosen in single-mandate constituencies, and the remaining 25 percent on party lists.
Finally, Aliyev -- who has suffered several ailments in recent years -- wants the presidential duties to be handed over to the prime minister if the head of state dies, resigns, or is incapacitated. Article 105 of the present constitution reads that, in such cases, the president's powers are transferred to the speaker of parliament until new elections are organized within the next three months.
Opposition leader Etibar Mamedov is the chairman of Azerbaijan's National Independence Party. He told our correspondent that, although he welcomes the idea of lowering the threshold of votes required for victory in presidential polls -- an initiative he describes as "sensible" -- he generally believes Aliyev wants to change the electoral system in order to strengthen his grip on the country:
"[His] aim is clear. By doing this, he shows that he no longer trusts either his entourage or the parliament he actually set up himself. Under the present constitution, if the president is unable to perform his duties, the parliament speaker takes over. But what [Aliev] demonstrates is that he is not sure that, should something like that happen [to him,] the parliament would make the decisions he wants it to make. Therefore, he wants the constitution to be amended in such a way that he would be replaced by a man he would have had appointed himself beforehand."
Under the present constitution, the prime minister is appointed by the president, who is required to secure the approval of the Milli Meclis. However, the head of state has the right to circumvent the opposition of the deputies.
Mamedov's remarks echo similar comments published in Azerbaijan's Russian-language "Zerkalo," an independent newspaper which yesterday wrote that Aliev's proposals regarding who should assume the interim in case the president is incapacitated amount to a "vote of no confidence" toward the Milli Meclis and its speaker, Murtuz Aleskerov.
A long-time associate of Aliev's and a deputy chairman of the Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) ruling party, Aleskerov was re-elected parliament chairman in late November 2000 in the wake of a controversial legislative poll that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said was marred by massive fraud.
Aliev's Yeni Azerbaycan claimed victory with 75 percent of the votes, while Mamedov's National Independence Party and other leading opposition groups -- such as Musavat -- officially did not overcome the 6 percent threshold required to win seats in parliament. Mamedov's subsequent attempts to have the results of the poll canceled did not succeed.
Azerbaijan's parliament is overwhelmingly made up of representatives of Yeni Azerbaycan and other political groups loyal to the president.
In Mamedov's view, the proposed constitutional changes aim at further marginalizing the opposition:
"[Aliev] is already worried that his opponents are getting stronger and stronger within political parties. Therefore, he is trying to have the constitution modified in such a way that the proportional system is abolished. In fact, that amounts to saying that parties are getting excluded from the electoral process."
Critics argue that legislative elections based on a majority basis may be good for Western European countries, but not for Azerbaijan's nascent democracy. In remarks printed yesterday in the Russian "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" newspaper, Azerbaijani independent political analyst Rasim Musabekov said the planned changes in the electoral system would, first and foremost, profit the ruling party. Musabekov believes isolated opponents running on single-mandate constituencies would be much more vulnerable to harassment and intimidation than candidates running on party lists.
Zardusht Alizade is the co-chairman of the Social Democratic Party. Like Mamedov, he welcomes the lowering of the threshold of votes required for presidential polls. But he told RFE/RL that he, too, believes Aliyev mostly aims at emasculating the already splintered opposition:
"The abolition of the proportional system for legislative elections is an attempt at preventing the creation of normal, genuine, political parties in Azerbaijan."
Opposition media and political analysts have speculated that Aliev's move might in fact aim at ensuring a smooth handover of power to the political heir of his choice -- a move that, in addition, would have all the attributes of legality.
Few in Baku believe Aliyev -- due to health reasons -- would really seek a third five-year term in office in 2003.
In 1995, the Milli Meclis voted a constitutional amendment that restricts presidents to two terms in office, but Aliyev argues that his first term, which started two years before the change took place, does not count.
Yet, Social Democrat leader Alizade does not believe Aliyev plans to run for another term. Rather, he sees the proposed constitutional changes as an attempt on the part of the head of state at consolidating further his power in anticipation of his withdrawal from Azerbaijan's political life:
"By proposing these constitutional changes, [Aliev] pursues a unique aim: he wants to make it easier for his successor -- whether his son or anybody else -- to falsify [election results.] Should he be sure to run himself, he wouldn't bother to touch the constitution because he knows that he can multiply his votes by two or three. But he fears his heir will not be 'bold' enough to do so and, therefore, he wants to make the job easier for him. This is the real meaning of all this row about a constitution which, anyway, does not function and is being constantly violated."
Azerbaijan's opposition media have speculated that Aliyev plans to appoint his 40-year-old son Ilham to the post of prime minister to replace Artur Rasuzade, the current head of government. That would automatically put him in charge of the oil-rich republic in case his father steps down before his mandate expires and, if the proposed constitutional changes are adopted, make him the second most powerful person in the state apparatus.
Replying to a reporter's question upon his departure for Istanbul on 24 June, Aliyev denied that the planned constitutional amendments aim at redistributing powers within the ruling hierarchy.
Yeni Azerbaycan's first deputy chairman, Ilham Aliev, is also the first deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's State Oil Company. He also runs Azerbaijan's National Olympic Committee and holds a seat in the Milli Meclis.
Ilham Aliyev is generally seen as the most likely successor to the current head of state, although it is not yet certain that he wants to succeed his father. Another prominent member of the so-called "Aliyev clan" -- Azerbaijan's former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the president's son-in-law, Mahmut Mammadguliev -- is often tipped as a possible candidate to take over the reigns of power.
Like many other opposition leaders, National Independence Party chairman Mamedov doubts Ilham Aliyev has the stature of a national leader, "unless he frees himself from his father's tutelage."
As for Alizade, he believes that, should Ilham Aliyev become Azerbaijan's new president, "that would be the prelude to a violent change of regime because the people will not accept him."
In the meantime, the Social Democrat leader says, the opposition should seize the opportunity of the 24 August referendum to test its strength and try to regroup its disseminated forces ahead of next year's presidential poll.
Echoing Musabekov's comments to "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," Mamedov says he does not believe the results of the upcoming poll will be fair, especially if -- as he claims -- electoral officials decide that voters be required to answer all questions as a whole. Yet, Mamedov says, his party has still not decided whether to call its supporters to boycott the referendum.