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Explainer: Azerbaijan's Referendum Poses More Questions Than Meet The Eye

There has been speculation that the post of first vice president is being created for President Ilham Aliyev's wife, Mehriban (left), who is a New Azerbaijan Party deputy chairwoman, or for their 19-year-old son, Heidar.
There has been speculation that the post of first vice president is being created for President Ilham Aliyev's wife, Mehriban (left), who is a New Azerbaijan Party deputy chairwoman, or for their 19-year-old son, Heidar.

Authorities in Azerbaijan are holding a referendum on September 26 over changes to the country's constitution that are expected to strengthen the grip on power of President Ilham Aliyev and his family. Here's what's at stake:

The Questions Facing Voters

The referendum includes a whopping 29 proposed amendments to numerous chapters of the Azerbaijani Constitution, which went into force after a 1995 popular vote and has been amended twice since, in 2002 and again in 2009.

Voters won't have to say "yes" or "no" to the whole package, but instead may choose to approve or reject individual amendments. So it is a potentially confusing array of choices.

The most important of the proposed changes is an extension of the president's term of office from five to seven years. The current head of state, 54-year-old Ilham Aliyev, has been in office since taking over from his ailing father in 2003, paving the way for hastily organized elections; his current term is slated to end in 2018, but a presidential term limit was scrapped in 2009.

Another amendment seeks to create two vice-presidential posts, both of whose occupants would be appointed and dismissed by the president. The first vice president would become the country's No. 2 official and presidential powers would devolve to him or her in the event that the president becomes incapable of discharging his duties -- rather than to the prime minister, who needs to be approved by parliament. Only if the first vice president is similarly incapacitated would presidential powers devolve to the prime minister.

A further proposal empowers the president to schedule an early presidential election and dissolve parliament if twice in one year legislators pass no-confidence measures in the government or reject presidential nominees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, or the Azerbaijani Central Bank's governing board.

The minimum age for presidential candidates, currently 35, would also be abolished and the age for election to the legislature lowered from 25 to 18.

The First Family: Heidar (left), Arzu, and Leyla -- Will they succeed their father in power as he succeeded his?
The First Family: Heidar (left), Arzu, and Leyla -- Will they succeed their father in power as he succeeded his?

Another proposed amendment would restrict the right to free assembly to make it contingent on "public order and morality." The proposal comes amid accusations that Azerbaijan's government has escalated repression against its critics, marking a deterioration of an already poor rights record. Human rights groups say dozens of human rights defenders, political and civil activists, and journalists have been arrested or imprisoned in recent years on politically motivated charges.

A further proposed change would grant officials greater power of eminent domain to expropriate privately owned land in the interest of "social justice and effective land use." Such a passage invites fears that officials who already possess considerable discretion over property issues might abuse even greater leverage. Authorities in the capital, Baku, and elsewhere have tangled with residents en masse in the past, including earlier this month when protesting residents complained of being tear-gassed and then seeing their homes demolished without notice or compensation.

In addition, Azerbaijani citizenship could be withdrawn "in accordance with the law."

'Stability And Democracy'

Azerbaijan's ruling officials have defended the proposals contained in the referendum on stability and democracy grounds, while opposition and other critics argue that it is an authoritarian grab for further power.

Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov said the referendum was "aimed at protecting stability," in part ostensibly because the country "is developing rapidly and people's living standards are improving." Deputy Prime Minister Ali Ahmadov said the amendments could improve the "political system and governance."

Parliament deputy speaker Ziyafet Asgarov said the referendum was important to help "reinforce state authorities, and ensure human rights and freedoms at a higher level."

Ruling New Azerbaijan (Yeni Azerbaycan) Party official Siyavush Novruzov argued that extending presidential terms makes sense to avoid staging elections in three consecutive years in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

'Status Quo Or Worse'

But critics claim the government's proposal of the amendments -- coming immediately after a failed coup in neighboring Turkey -- is intended to consolidate and prolong Aliyev and his family's grip on power.

Ali Kerimli, chairman of the Popular Front Party (AHCP), described it as "an attempt to provide a constitutional foundation for the existing de facto unlimited family power [and] strengthen authoritarianism."

"This referendum only serves to strengthen the president as an institution and weaken all government branches," said former lawmaker Iqbal Agazade, who heads the independent Hope (Umid) political party.

"It looks like the current regime does not see existing legislation as authoritarian enough, or sufficient enough to establish a monarchy," said Arif Hacili, head of the opposition Equality (Musavat) party. "This is why it has decided to change the constitution."

Past As Predictor Of Future Behavior?

There has been speculation that the post of first vice president is being created for President Aliyev's wife, Mehriban, who is a New Azerbaijan Party deputy chairwoman, or for their 19-year-old son, Heidar.

In the past, Azerbaijan has organized constitutional referendums marred by fraud that directly benefited the Aliyev family. In 2002, then-President Heidar Aliyev called a referendum on constitutional amendments that included a stipulation that the powers of the president devolve to the prime minister if the head of state resigns or is incapacitated. Soon after, the elder Aliyev, who had been in power for a decade, appointed his son to the premiership and thus facilitated the transfer of power to Ilham.

And Ilham Aliyev in 2009 initiated the referendum that scrapped the two-term limit on presidents, enabling his 2013 reelection for a third term.

Intensified Crackdown

Human rights groups accuse Azerbaijani authorities of unleashing a new wave of repression to silence critical voices following July's failed coup in Turkey and ahead of the referendum.

A number of activists have been harassed, detained, arrested, and/or fined -- allegedly for campaigning against the vote or for suspected links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of organizing the coup attempt in Turkey.

"We fear that we are now seeing the beginning of a new wave in the crackdown on civil society and opposition in direct relation to the referendum," Ane Tusvik Bonde of the Oslo-based Human Rights House Foundation said in an August 16 statement.

At least three opposition groups' members have been targeted by law enforcement as recently as August. Republican Alternative movement (REAL) Executive Secretary Natiq Cafarli was arrested on charges of illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power before being released on September 9, and two REAL activists were sentenced to administrative detention on charges of resisting police. Meanwhile, pro-democracy youth movement N!DA's Elgiz Gahraman was charged with drug possession and ordered into four-month pretrial detention. Several members of the opposition Popular Front -- including Fuad Ahmadli, Gadim Bakirov, and Faig Amirov -- were put in pretrial detention or held in administrative detention.

Authorities also harassed political activist Baxtiyar Haciyev, who was fined 100 manats ($61) on charges of "minor hooliganism" and prevented on September 18 from leaving the country to attend an OSCE conference on human rights (due to what officials would later describe as a technical error).

Sport for Rights, an international campaign drawing attention to human rights violations in Azerbaijan, says it considers the charges against the activists to be politically motivated, and has called for their immediate and unconditional release. The new crackdown "occurs against the backdrop of a dire overall human rights situation in Azerbaijan," an August 18 statement said.

"The media remains completely dominated by the state, and critical journalists operate in a climate of fear," the campaign added. "Excessive restrictions remain on civil society, severely hindering the ability of independent NGOs to operate."

There have been minor gatherings in Baku at which demonstrators have called for the cancelation of the referendum and for democratic reforms. Police have detained some of those protesters.

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