The government of Azerbaijan has claimed an overwhelming victory in a controversial referendum on 24 August that the opposition and independent observers say was marked by fraud and intimidation. The government defended the referendum, which made 39 changes to the country's constitution, as being necessary for Azerbaijan to meet its international human rights commitments. But critics argued that that explanation was merely a smokescreen for changes intended to cement the ruling party's grip on power, possibly for another generation.
Baku, 26 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- According to preliminary results from the Central Election Commission, nearly 90 percent of Azerbaijan's 4.4 million voters turned out to cast ballots in the 24 August referendum on amendments to the constitution. The commission also reported that nearly 100 percent supported all 39 changes.
But the opposition, which had called for a boycott of the vote, says such results are absurd. They claim turnout was closer to 15 percent, and that the government shuttled voters from polling station to polling station so they could cast multiple ballots. They also charge that people were forced to vote, that ballots were stuffed, and that monitors and election officials were threatened and intimidated.
Eldar Ismayilov, head of the nongovernmental organization For the Sake of Civil Society, summarized the opposition's position. "These violations represent a continued effort by the government of Azerbaijan to falsify elections. The four political parties that observed these elections declare that a quorum did not take place and that the will of the people was distorted and that state-organized crime took place across the country. Therefore, the results of this referendum are illegal," Ismayilov said.
But the Central Election Commission rejects those charges. Rovzat Gasimov, the head of international relations for the commission, said: "The [Central Election Commission] officially stated that no complaints have been filed to the commission on violations of law in the course of [the] referendum."
The raft of changes to the constitution, which were officially proposed only two months ago, include a wide variety of issues. Human rights advocates welcomed some of them in the abstract, such as a guaranteed alternative to military service and granting citizens the right to take grievances to the Constitutional Court, the country's highest court.
But two changes drew intense criticism. One eliminates the proportional-representation system under which 20 percent of legislators are elected to parliament, and the other changes the order of succession in case the president is incapacitated.
The opposition charges that President Heidar Aliyev pushed through the latter amendment in order to name his son, a state oil-company executive, as his successor. Aliev, who is 79 and has had serious health problems, denies that charge. He has said he plans to run for a third term as president when his term expires in October 2003.
Gasimov of the Central Election Commission said voters supported the amendments because of a massive nationwide education campaign in the run-up to the vote. He said citizens realized that the changes will affect everyone. "The constitution is a thing that concerns everyone in the country. That's why the people were very active. We had a very high participation as you have seen," Gasimov said.
But Andreas Gross, a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly member who observed voting on Saturday, said he has serious concerns about the referendum. He said he doubts an entire country could be educated about so many changes to the country's constitution in only two months. His native Switzerland would consider such changes for two years before going to the polls, he said, and American states such as California or Oregon would wait a year.
He added that voting patterns indicate citizens did not really understand the 39 changes, which were broken into eight categories on the ballot. "In one polling station, out of the  ballot sheets, 755 [were] only 'Yes' -- only 'Yes' votes to all eight questions. And only 63 out of 840 differentiated. That means only 63 people out of 840 went to the polling station with an educated, differentiated position, and they in fact said 'no' to the four really most controversial issues," Gross said.
Even before the election, critics had warned that many people would not be able to understand the ballot, which was written in Latin characters. Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic alphabet only a year ago, and even many educated people have difficulty reading the language in the new alphabet.
Gross said the voting patterns give him reason to suspect that claims of vote fraud -- of which Azerbaijan is often accused -- could be correct. "This indicates that some of the opposition people and some of the observers I also heard are right when they say some people voted under pressure. Some people under pressure had to vote several times, and some people also voted two or three times in the same ballot [station]. And that means too many things [were not] correct," Gross said.
Gross, who specializes in referendum democracy, said there were serious problems with Azerbaijan's referendum even before polling day. He argued that the national requirement of a 50 percent turnout to validate the vote was problematic to begin with. Such thresholds, he said, invited the opposition's boycott strategy and the government's alleged coercion of voters. "[The] 50 percent requirement -- you can learn this from German history, you can learn this from Italian history -- is always a seduction, an incentive to boycott and to misuse the power. So they are in fact trapped by their own mistakes. Why do you have a 50 percent requirement? You don't need this," Gross said.
Saturday's vote may well not mark the end of the referendum issue. International observers are still compiling reports, and the Central Election Commission is expected to announce official results by the end of the week. The opposition, meanwhile, says it will take the government to court. A referendum that was promoted as being an advance in human rights may yet end up before the European Court of Human Rights.