By Chiara Loda (@ChiaraLoda)
Posted first on Presidential Powers blog on 26 September 2016.
On 26 September, citizens of Azerbaijan were called to vote in a constitutional referendum. The constitution, approved in 1995, was already amended in 2002 and 2009. While the current amendments concern numerous topics (including civic liberties and right of assembly), some of them specifically concern the President’s role. It is proposed:
- To amend Article 101.1 of the current constitution, which would extend the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.
- To introduce a “First Vice President” and a “Vice President”, chosen and appointed by the president. In the case of the president’s inability to perform his role, the First Vice President would take over. Currently, this “second-in-charge” function is a prerogative of the prime minister
- To remove the minimum age limit to run for President (currently, it is 35). Similarly, the minimum age for parliamentarian is lowered from 25 to 18.
- To introduce the right for the President to dissolve the parliament. This is in the event that the parliament votes no confidence to the government twice in a year or refuses the suggested appointees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court or the Central Bank’s main board.
In order to maximise the inclusivity of the voting process, polling stations have been established in Azerbaijani embassies. Remarkably, everything is ready in Ankara, Teheran and Riyadh. However, notwithstanding the vocal support of the ruling party, the opposition has expressed its grave concern over the proposed changes.
While President Ilham Aliyev has not personally commented on the proposed amendments, pro-government voices have openly endorsed them. MP Siyavus Novruzov, who is the deputy executive secretary of the ruling ‘New Azerbaijan Party’, has defined the proposed amendments as necessary to enhance national security and reform of the state administration. Emil Huseynli, head of the ‘Support for Youth Development – Dushunje’, declared that the various changes, including the strengthening of the presidential office, will foster the sustainable development of the country. Referring to the relaxation of the age limits, he commented that: this “will create an opportunity for the political activity of literate, prospective young people.” However, the opposition thinks that this amendment is specifically designed to favour a semi-monarchical transfer of power and, henceforth, that the children of the president would likely be the main beneficiaries of this “political opportunity”. Notably, it has been observed that Heydar Aliyev, the only son of the presidential couple, will be 27 in 2025 (the most likely year for a presidential election). If his father decides to run for the presidential office in 2018 and to step down after that, the young Heydar would be an extremely probable “new” candidate. Other possible scenarios are the election of Heydar to parliament or the appointment of a member of the presidential family as vice-president
In addition to being concerned about the future implication of these changes for the Aliyev family, the opposition is worried about the immediate effects of a “reinforced presidency”. Arif Hajili, the leader of Musavat party, bluntly declared that: “They [the state authorities] are not even able to explain to their citizens why we need these changes to the Constitution. They believe they can create a second North Korea here and rule in the same style”. Similarly, the prominent lawyer, Fuad Agayev, commented that: “An analysis of the document indicates that, if adopted, it will have an adverse impact on human rights, civil rights and freedoms, as well as power-sharing”. This kind of apprehension is also shared by some international observers. Chris Smith, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, sent a concerned letter to Ilham Aliyev. At one point, it stated clearly that: “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people.” Lastly, some observers expect the referendum to be rigged.
In September various well attended protest rallies took place in Baku. The main argument is that the only aim of the referendum is to reinforce Aliev’s rule. “No to monarchy!” and “No robbery!” were the main slogans chanted. Additionally, in the attempt to generate an international response, some Human Right Defenders asked to Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to submit the proposed amendments to the Venice Commission. The main points of concern they raised were: the massive empowerment of the presidential office, the authoritarian climate the referendum takes place in, the non-consultation of the parliament, and the absence of public debate. In addition to the Azerbaijani Human Right Defenders, on 5 September the PACE Bureau also asked the Venice Commission to give an urgent opinion.
In response, on 20 September the Venice Commission issued a “Preliminary Opinion on the Draft Modifications to the Constitution”. In the context of widespread concern on different matters, including the repression of dissident opinions, the Venice Commission expressed clear worries about the amendments in relation to the presidency. More specifically, it noted that, back in 2009, the removal of the two-term limit to re-election had already strengthened the power of the president. In the light of that, it said that: “the modification to Article 101 which extends the Presidential mandate for longer than is the European practice, coupled with the previous removal of the two-term limit, concentrates power in the hands of a single person in a manner not compatible with the separation of powers”. In addition, the Venice Commission expressed its concern about the president’s powers to dissolve the parliament, to call early elections, and to appoint a vice-president who, in practical terms, would be an unelected second-in-command.
Even though the voting has yet to be finalised, the rejection of the proposed amendments seems highly unlikely in contemporary Azerbaijan. Henceforth, in the face of domestic and international concern, the presidential office, which is already remarkably strong, will be further reinforced. Unfortunately, this seems to be a prelude to a further consolidation of the authoritarian tendencies in the country.
 BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri court approves referendum on constitutional change’, 26 July (Retrieved through LexisNexis).
 In addition to him, the president has two daughters, Leyla and Arzu.
Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘It’s time for the United States to act on Azerbaijan’, September 9 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).
 Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Arif Hajili: Usurpation of Power Will Not Save Aliyev’. 18 September (Retrieved through LexisNexis).
 Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Jamil Hasanli: Aliyev does not get tired to pervert the Constitution’. September 17 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).
 The role of the Venice Commission, with reference to the constitutional referendum in Armenia, has already been discussed in this blog.
 Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘The report of “Musavat” about the referendum campaign’. 5 September (retrieved through LexisNexis).