Azerbaijan will hold a referendum on September 26 upon President Ilham Aliyev's initiative to amend the constitution by creating two new offices - that of vice president and first vice president, extending the presidential term from five to seven years and the president's control over succession, and scrapping requirements that candidates for presidency and parliament be over 35 and 25 years old, respectively.
The proposed amendments have been heavily criticised by the opposition, which accused the incumbent of seeking to consolidate his grip on power and to pave the way for his 18-year-old son Heydar to become president. In early September, the enfeebled opposition organised rallies in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. However, observers have informed bne IntelliNews that the turnout at the referendum is expected to be low, as Azerbaijanis are more concerned with the worsening economic conditions in the country than with politics at the moment.
In particular, the Venice Commission noted 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 noted, given the already strong position of the president.
Aliyev 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.
Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, and council decisions are enforceable in the country. The report is meant as an advisory tool, and its authors have noted that due to the two-week time limit they had to prepare it, they did not consult with the authorities in Baku.
A Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation will oversee the September 26 ballot.
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