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Azerbaijan: Cynical Voters Voice Low Expectations For Major Referendum

On Saturday, the people of Azerbaijan are being asked to vote in a national referendum that would make nearly 40 changes to the country's constitution. The government says the changes are necessary to bring Azerbaijan into compliance with its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe, while critics charge that the referendum is really designed to stifle opposition and make it easier for Azerbaijan's aging leader Heidar Aliyev to hand the presidency to a chosen successor. While the politicians trade accusations, few Azerbaijanis say they are planning to vote at all. Fewer still say they understand the issues.

Baku, 22 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Five thousand polling stations will open across Azerbaijan on Saturday morning, ready to hand voters a three-page ballot listing nearly 40 proposed changes and amendments to the country's seven-year-old constitution.

The government says the changes are necessary because of international human-rights commitments that Azerbaijan has made. The opposition questions that claim and says the entire procedure for conducting the referendum is flawed, if not illegal. They also argue that voters have not been given enough time to study the issues since the vote is taking place just two months after it was announced.

The opposition has called for a boycott of the referendum in hopes of rendering it invalid by demonstrating that less than 50 percent of the population cast votes. The government, meanwhile, has launched a massive get-out-the-vote campaign, including posters, signs, and television advertising.

Adela, who is 64 and retired, said she doesn't know what the issues are, but that she is going to vote because it's her responsibility as a citizen. "I am going to [vote]. You have to take part. It's our country. You can't stand apart from it. We must always participate. We'll see what's there, but we have to go. Maybe our vote will play some positive role," Adela said.

The referendum covers a wide variety of issues, including a civilian alternative to military service and granting individuals the right to appeal rulings directly to the country's highest court, the Constitutional Court.

But some of the proposed changes have drawn intense criticism. The most contentious amendments would eliminate the proportional-representation system under which 20 percent of the members of parliament are elected, and change the order of succession in case the president is incapacitated. As it stands, the speaker of parliament is next in line to the presidency. If the proposed change goes through, the prime minister would succeed the president.

Because the prime minister is appointed directly by the president, while the speaker is elected by parliament, critics charge the amendment, if approved, would essentially allow President Heidar Aliyev to name his own successor.

Despite intense debate over the referendum in political and diplomatic circles, few people stopped on the street in the capital, Baku, seem to be informed about the issues. Tahir, an unemployed construction engineer, is a rare exception. Three days before the vote, he stopped to study a sample ballot posted on the wall of Baku's Chess Club. "I have just read what it's about. It's interesting, good. We'll see what comes out of it. I hope it will work, what they are proposing. We have to hope for the best. I hope it will change things for the better. There will be more human rights," Tahir said.

But Tahir's attitude is unusual. Many people say they are not going to vote either because they are not interested or because they say they do not believe their votes will make a difference.

International and local observers regularly criticize elections in Azerbaijan as not being free or fair. There have been widespread reports in past elections of vote fraud, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation.

The opposition had planned to field 15,000 election observers nationwide on Saturday, but the Central Election Commission registered only about 5,000 of them, and did so only after intense international pressure. Nearly 60,000 observers, meanwhile, are registered for pro-government parties. Only a handful of international monitors are expected.

In response to opposition calls, 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.

Fuad, an actor who supports the opposition Musavat party in Azerbaijan, said he is not going to vote because he doesn't trust the system. "The elections here are not done in the right way. I have my own party, Musavat, but the last time when elections were held, it didn't go right. No elections go right," Fuad said.

Ahmed, who works for a publishing agency, is not planning to vote either. He voiced the widespread belief that the referendum is partly intended to enable Aliev, who is 79 and in poor health, to hand power to his son Ilham. "I am not interested. I know it's a game, something our president has made up. It's because he wants his son to become president, and that's why I'm not going to vote. Not just me, nobody is going to vote. It's quite clear," Ahmed said.

Tural, a 20-year-old economist, is proof that Ahmed overstates the case when he claims that no one will vote on Saturday. But it is unlikely the government would be any more pleased by his reasons for voting than by Ahmed's reasons for not voting. "I believe that everything has been decided already. The government and the state will make it beneficial for themselves. I want to go and show my protest," Tural said.

The opposition carried out its own protest by organizing a demonstration in Baku on 20 August, while an official in the President's Office asserted the same day that 73 percent of Azerbaijani voters have expressed support for the referendum.

Given the allegations of fraud that have accompanied previous elections in Azerbaijan, Saturday's vote seems likely to be an occasion for the government and opposition to trade yet more accusations and recriminations.