Some 69.7% of Azerbaijan's 5.2mn registered voters cast ballots in a controversial referendum on constitutional amendments that are expected to strengthen the grip on power of President Ilham Aliyev. The figure exceeds the 25% minimum turnout necessary to validate the results, which will be announced by October 21, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said, and is higher than the 50% average turnout at parliamentary and presidential elections in recent years.
An exit poll organised by the Citizens’ Labour Rights Protection League in collaboration with US consultancy AJF& Associates placed the ‘yes’ vote at 88.9%. The poll was based on 32,400 interviews conducted at 450 voting stations, and placed the voter turnout at 67.5%.
Critics have accused the proponent of the referendum, President Aliyev, of seeking to enshrine his already great executive powers in the constitution and to pave the way for his family to succeed him should he fall sick or step down. 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. His proposal came shortly after the attempted coup d'etat in Turkey, which is one of Azerbaijan’s main commercial and diplomatic partners.
The two new offices would give the head of state absolute control over who succeeds him, and critics have accused Aliyev of seeking to appoint his wife Mehriban, who is an MP, or his son Heydar to one or both offices. Under existing legislation, the prime minister would replace the president as interim head of state if the latter falls sick or steps down. Furthermore, the constitutional amendments would further limit freedom of assembly in the repressive country by granting the government even greater control over the civil society.
The enfeebled opposition in Azerbaijan, which comprises of four main parties – Musavat, the Popular Front and Nida and Real movements – organised protests in the lead-up to the referendum, but failed to mobilise the Azerbaijani population against the event.
In an email to bne IntelliNews, Razi Nurullayev, chairperson of the Popular Front, explained that the lack of unity among opposition parties has allowed Aliyev to enhance his powers undaunted. “Is the ruling party strong? No, they are not strong. The opposition is weak and can't get support from the nation due to infighting,” he lamented, while noting that “Azerbaijanis are neither with the regime, nor with the opposition”, but rather consumed by financial worries that have exacerbated in the last year as the economy has slid into recession.
The government's crackdown on critics has contributed to the weak opposition to the referendum, as Baku has moved to arrest scores of demonstrators and opposition activists all over the country in September. Democracy watchdog Amnesty International decried the arrests and intimidation in a report on September 23. “All major elections in recent years in Azerbaijan have been marked by crackdowns on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. In the last three years, virtually all the outspoken human rights defenders and other prominent government critics... have been targeted through arrest and imprisonment on trumped up charges,” its report notes.
The event has received little interest from international orgnisations. The only European organisation that sent a monitoring mission was the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Meanwhile, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not send a mission to the referendum or to the parliamentary elections that took place in November 2015 after Baku severely restricted the number of monitors that it would allow in the mission.
Meanwhile, CEC claims that it has closely monitored voting at polling stations using local and some 117 international observers, as well as cameras placed at 20% of the 5,600 voting stations. However, videos filmed by Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) appear to show duplicate voting at various stations in Baku through a practice called carousel voting, in which voters are driven around in vehicles to cast votes in several stations.
If the results of the referendum are in favour of changing the constitution – and they are likely to be – Aliyev would not have to run for office again until 2020. The Azerbaijani government now has almost a month to count the ballots and report the results.