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Azerbaijan: Government, Opposition Square Off Over Proposed Changes To Constitution

The people of Azerbaijan will be asked to vote in a referendum later this month (24 August) on nearly 40 changes to the constitution. The government says it is proposing the massive rewrite in order to bring the country in line with its obligations as a member of international organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opposition says the real purpose of the referendum is to strengthen President Heidar Aliev's grip on power -- and to make it easier for him to name his successor.

Baku, 2 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Government and opposition figures in Azerbaijan met yesterday in Baku for the first of five scheduled roundtable discussions on proposed changes to the country's constitution.

The two sides could not have been further apart on the subject of the day -- a proposal to eliminate proportional electoral lists in parliamentary elections.

Under the present system, adopted when the current constitution became law in 1995, 100 parliamentary deputies are elected in winner-take-all majority constituencies. The remaining 25 members of parliament are selected from party lists based on the proportion of the overall vote each party receives.

The government says proportional lists are an experiment that's failed. Legislators elected on party lists do not feel responsible to constituencies, it argues, and merely become obstructive in a presidential system such as the one in Azerbaijan.

Shahin Aliyev of the legal department of the president's office explained the government's viewpoint at yesterday's roundtable: "The proportional system is useful only in parliamentary republics. It is useless and can even create obstacles in a presidential republic such as ours. The majority system is well known to work in many countries, such as Italy, for example."

The opposition disagrees. Arif Hadjiev, deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, said he believes the change is designed to drive opposition parties in Azerbaijan out of existence.

Hadjiev also argues that eliminating proportional lists will make it easier for the authorities to conduct fraudulent elections. Previous elections in Azerbaijan have been criticized as undemocratic by international and domestic election monitors. "The government has never so far explained the necessity for changing the system. Liquidating the proportional system is a way to establish the rule of one party. It is harder to falsify and manipulate a proportional system. The comparison should not be to Belgium and Italy but to the Central Asian republics."

Shahin Aliyev dismisses the opposition's charges. He says opposition parties are more concerned about their own power than about democracy. "Parties are concerned about their place in parliament if we eliminate the proportional lists. But it will still be possible for deputies to represent parties unofficially if they are elected as individuals in a majority system."

In addition to the idea of eliminating proportional electoral lists, some observers are concerned about proposed constitutional changes that would double the time allowed before election results must be announced, from seven days to 14 days, and the lowering of the parliamentary threshold for electing the president from two-thirds to a simple majority.

Most controversial of all, the referendum would change the order of succession in case the president is incapacitated. As it stands, the speaker of parliament takes over official functions if the president retires or dies. Under the proposed system, the prime minister would take charge -- a concern because the prime minister is appointed directly by the president, unlike the speaker, who is elected by parliament.

The opposition says the change will essentially allow President Aliev, who is 79 and has had serious health problems, to name his own successor, similar to the way Russia's Boris Yeltsin handed power to Vladimir Putin.

Not all of the 38 changes to be decided by the 24 August referendum concern politics, however. They also include initiatives such as creating civilian service as an alternative to conscription, establishing an ombudsman, and guaranteeing citizens the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court.

A large number of groups in Azerbaijan have aligned themselves against the proposed constitutional changes, including dozens of opposition parties and 150 nongovernmental organizations.

The opposition is calling for the referendum to be postponed, a request also supported by the U.S. State Department. The vote is taking place barely two months after it was announced, not enough time, it is believed, for voters to become fully informed about the issues in the referendum.

Though a delay in the voting appears unlikely, the opposition can claim one small victory. The Central Election Commission has broken the proposed amendments into eight categories of related items, each of which can be approved or rejected individually. The government had planned an all-or-nothing single-item ballot.

But that change and the government's participation in the roundtable discussions have not been enough to assuage the opposition, which is calling for a boycott of the voting. Hadjiev says the government's concessions are inadequate. "Our boycott is an active, not a passive, boycott. We will send observers to polling stations to observe the referendum. We asked the government to make some procedural changes, such as to make the Electoral Commission more transparent, and we had several other hopes from the government which they did not meet. So we believe it won't be a referendum, it will be an absurdity. It won't be clear or transparent."

Analysts say the opposition cannot hope to muster enough support to get voters to reject the referendum. The opposition's best option, they say, is to call for a boycott and to monitor voting in an effort to show that less than 50 percent of registered voters participated, which would render the poll invalid.

The timing of the vote may help the opposition's strategy, since many people take holidays at the end of August and may not cast ballots.