When voters in Azerbaijan head to the polls on September 26, they will simply be asked to vote "yes" or "no" to a raft of controversial amendments to the country's constitution that, if adopted, would expand President Ilham Aliyev's powers.
However, many voters say they know little or nothing about the 29 proposed changes, which include key measures international constitutional experts say are at odds with democratic norms.
"I am aware they are planning to make some changes," one young woman told RFE/RL recently in an informal street survey. "But I don't know which ones exactly." Like many Baku residents, she preferred not to give her name.
"I have not heard anything, though of course I will participate," a middle-aged man said.
"I am not going to lie to you," another man said. "I have no clue."
The proposed changes include provisions that would extend the presidential term from five to seven years, empower the president to appoint a temporary successor, and give the president power to dismiss parliament. Azerbaijani opposition parties say the measures, if approved, would aid Aliyev to tighten the grip his family currently holds on power and extend it for another generation.
The Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional issues, said on September 20 said many of the draft proposals gave "unprecedented" powers to the president. It called the amendments "at odds with European constitutional heritage."
The amendments were published in one state newspaper, the ruling party’s mouthpiece Yeni Azerbaijan, and by state broadcaster AzerTac. However, the bullet-point lists of the amendments included no explanation of their consequences and the authorities appear to have employed a number of tactics that have helped keep voters in the dark.
"The proposed amendments were never opened to public discussion," says Alasgar Mammadli, an independent lawyer in Baku. "The collection of signatures against the referendum, the absence of independent media, and [restrictions] against opposition parties assembling freely all serve as obstacles to informing the people about the true nature of the changes as well."
The raft of amendments were proposed by Aliyev this summer to the Constitutional Court, which approved them at a session that lasted just two hours. Subsequently, the Central Election Commission denied registration to a group formed by one of Azerbaijan's opposition parties, Musavat, which intended to campaign against the amendments.
Efforts by the country's struggling nonstate media to discuss the implications of the changes have been sharply limited by the September 6 suspension of the independent newspaper Azadlyq and the July closure of ANS TV.
The most sweeping of the proposed amendments is the extension of the president's term from five to seven years. If adopted, it would mean Aliyev, who has already been in power 13 years, would not have to run again until 2020, instead of 2018. The 54-year-old president, who took over power from his ailing father in 2003, would then only have to run again every seven years -- something he would be able to do repeatedly, since the tightly controlled parliament in 2009 scrapped any limit on the number of consecutive terms a president could serve.
Azerbaijan's Proposed Constitutional Amendments
Some samples of how proposed changes to Azerbaijan's constitution have been presented to the public. Critics say the bullet-point list of 29 draft amendments includes no explanations of their consequences and helps keep voters in the dark.
3.1 Replace "nationality" with "ethnicity" in the first sentence of the third section; replace "nationality" with "ethnicity" in the second sentence;
3.2 Add the text below to Paragraph 6:
"VI. People with physical and mental disabilities are entitled to all rights, and carry out all duties, confirmed by this constitution, except the rights and duties impeded by limited abilities."
4.1. Consider the 5th paragraph as the 7th paragraph;
4.2. Add the following to Paragraphs 5 and 6:
"V. Private property causes social responsibility;
VI. Property rights over plots of land might be limited by law to ensure social justice and the effective use of plots of land."
Remove "under no circumstances" and add [the following] after the word "citizenship" -- "except when citizenship is lost in cases provided by law."
Add an additional two sub-paragraphs to Paragraph 1, after sub-paragraph 5:
6) In the event of a violation of the provisions of Part III of Article 93 of this constitution;
7) Upon a gross violation of the code of ethical conduct for members of parliament provided by law
There is no precedent in a democratic country that the presidential term is seven years and that the president can be indefinitely elected," Thomas Markert, secretary for the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, told RFE/RL on September 21. "That creates a serious risk of authoritarianism if one person has so much power without accountability through elections for such a long period."
Equally controversial is an amendment that would give the president power to name his own temporary successor in the event he can no longer discharge his duties or is voted out of office. Currently, that successor is to be the prime minister, who is elected by parliament. However, under the proposed changes, interim presidential power would pass to a newly created post of "first vice president," whose holder would be directly chosen by the president (Aliyev) himself.
"In Azerbaijan it is certainly legitimate to provide for a vice president, but then this vice president should be an elected vice president and not a vice president designated at will by the current president," says Markert. "This vice president may have important powers during some period and, of course, he also has an advantage for the succession because he may be temporary president when new elections are called, so it gives a lot of possibility to the outgoing president to influence the choice of his or her successor."
The proposal to create a new office of first vice president, plus proposed amendments to remove the minimum age for presidential candidates and reduce the age for election to the legislature to 18, have been criticized by Azerbaijani opposition parties as creating conditions under which Aliyev could seek to keep presidential power within his family for yet a third generation. Aliyev's son Heidar -- named after his grandfather, who ruled Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003 -- is currently 19, raising the possibility that he could be named first vice president or elected to parliament.
Yet another controversial proposed amendment would give the president power to dismiss parliament if it seeks to repeatedly defy him or criticize his choice of top officials. The proposal would empower the authority to dissolve the legislature if twice in one year it passes a no-confidence measure in the government or rejects presidential nominees to key government posts.
"This gives the president even more influence over the highest positions [for example] in the judiciary because parliament cannot really dare to refuse his proposals if it risks being dissolved," notes constitutional expert Markert.
The upcoming referendum is the third since Azerbaijan's current constitution went into force in 1995. In both previous polls, in 2002 and 2009, voters also were presented a raft of proposals to approve or reject with little information beforehand.
The new amendments come amid accusations by human rights groups that Azerbaijan's government has escalated repression against its critics, marking a deterioration of an already poor 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.