On September 26, Azerbaijan will hold a referendum called for by President Ilham Aliyev to amend the constitution by expanding the powers of the president. But despite it being an opportunity for Azerbaijanis to express their grievances about the state of the economy, the referendum is likely to have a low turnout and attract little attention from international observers.
Distracted by an economic crisis that has worsened in recent months, Azerbaijanis are likely to allow their leader to enshrine his already sizeable grip on power into the constitution, and to pave the way for dynastic presidency.
In July, Aliyev introduced a decree calling for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would seek to introduce two new offices in the state administration - that of the vice president and of the first vice president, positions that he would appoint and dismiss; extend the presidential term from five to seven years; and scrap the requirement that presidential and parliamentary candidates be over 35 and 25 years old respectively.
The country's enfeebled, suppressed and divided opposition did not take long to react to the proposal, accusing the incumbent of seeking to concentrate all power in his hands and of trying to ensure that his 18-year-old son Heydar succeeds to the position after he steps down, much like his late father did for him. Unlike his older sisters who have been active in public life, the young Aliyev is only known for his purchase of $40mn worth of real estate in Dubai in 2010, back when he was a 12-year-old schoolboy.
International institutions have barely reacted to the event, which makes a mockery of democracy in a country that already ranks at the bottom of international rankings for democracy and human rights. The only international institution that has responded to the upcoming event is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which includes Azerbaijan among its members, and which said that it would send a commission to observe the referendum.
Another body operating under the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, which is in charge of legislative affairs, criticised the proposed amendments in a preliminary report on September 20, noting that the changes would upset the balance of power in the country to the detriment of the already weak parliament and in favour of the presidency; that conditions for human rights are precarious and have been worsening; and that, even if the changes are made, they should only come in force after a regime change, so that voters cast their ballots cognizant of the president's powers. However, that will not be the case, as Aliyev will likely implement the changes during his regime. The proposal to extend the presidential term cannot be justified, the commission added, given the already strong position of the president.
Aliyev himself responded to the report by calling it “hasty” and “unfounded”. “It has many flaws and is politically driven. They speak to us in a language of ultimatums,” he said in a speech on September 21.
Many ordinary Azerbaijanis are unlikely to show up to vote, Razi Nurullayev, chairperson of the opposition Popular Front party and founder of the Baku-based Region International Analytical Centre think-tank, explains. " I expect that the majority of the population will be uninterested in the referendum, and that turnout will be low. Azerbaijanis understand that the constitution will not fill their stomachs or give them jobs," he wrote in an email to bne IntelliNews.
The economy of the country has worsened visibly in recent months because of currency depreciation and low oil and gas prices, which have sparked skyrocketing inflation, a banking crisis, a severe reduction in private and public investment in non-oil sectors of the economy, and isolated street protests.
Despite the fact that authorities banned rallies ahead of the referendum, opposition parties and movements such as the Popular Front and Nida (which means exclamation mark in Azerbaijani) organised demonstrations in the last two weekends. But while a rally on September 11 managed to gather as many as 10,000 protesters according to Turan news agency, the more recent protest on September 18 was a fiasco, Nurullayev says.
"Unfortunately, the opposition... failed to agitate [people] against the referendum and convince [them] to come and vote against [it]. The low turnout will create a very good environment for ballot rigging. The government commands administrative resources all over the country, and it will likely seek to mobilise passive voters to the polling stations," he explains.
Azerbaijani authorities have been unforgiving with critics of the administration, jailing, harassing, pushing into exile, and, according to some accusations, orchestrating the murder of prominent journalists and opposition members such as Elmar Huseynov or Novruzali Mamedov. But while governmental suppression has contributed to the lack of an effective opposition in the country, Nurullayev also criticises opposition parties themselves for failing to speak with one voice.
"Azerbaijanis are not with the government, but at the same time they are not with the opposition either...Oppositional leadership has been very fragmented," he says, while explaining that even within the same opposition party there are differences. For instance, his party, the Popular Front, is in the midst of a legal battle over party elections and leadership, and has a public leader, Ali Kerimli, and an elected leader, Nurullayev, who won the most recent party elections in 2015.
"Ali Kerimli claims that he is still the rightful leader of the Popular Front. The government has an interest in playing the sides against one another...Because of the leadership battle, the Popular Front lost its legal status," he elaborates. Disagreements appear to be at least in part justified by a clash between generations. On the one hand, the older generation of leaders has an outdated way of doing things; on the other hand, the young Azerbaijani population and political opposition want fresh political faces and perspectives.
"For 20 years, the opposition has been organising two rallies per year, every year. What happens after these rallies is that activists are arrested, dreams are broken, and then there is silence for almost a year. Opposition to the government needs to be continuous," Nurullayev complains. Among opposition parties, the competition is also fierce, he adds. "Is the ruling party strong? No, they are not strong. The opposition is weak and can't get the support from the nation due to infighting," he says.
The referendum will therefore be a non-event. Even if the ballots are rigged, there will be no consequences, the politician concludes. With an unusually silent international community and a fragmented and ineffective opposition, Aliyev is likely to win his fourth ballot since 2003 unchallenged.