Azerbaijanis went to the polls today (26 September) in a controversial referendum on handing extra powers to long-serving President Ilham Aliyev, with opposition and human rights groups criticising the proposed constitutional changes as undemocratic.
The amendments would extend the president’s term in office from five to seven years, and create a powerful new first vice-president position, and several other vice-presidencies. Removing the paragraph “no younger than 35” in the constitution, on requirements for presidential candidates, has also been proposed.
The document additionally gives the Azerbaijani leader additional power to dissolve the parliament and call for early presidential elections.
According to the proposed amendments, persons aged 18 can be elected to the parliament. The previous age barrier to parliament was 25.
The proposed amendments also contain a constitutional ban on the establishment of associations that might pose a threat to the country’s national security.
Opposition groups staged mass protests ahead of the referendum, denouncing it as Aliyev’s effort to extend his family’s long grip on power in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
The Council of Europe’s constitutional law experts said the draft modifications of the constitution “would severely upset the balance of power by giving unprecedented powers to the president”.
Amnesty International said, “The amendments will lead to violations of the right to freedom of association.”
“The referendum has been accompanied by arrests and intimidation,” the rights group said in a statement. “Those who have attempted to criticise and campaign against these proposals have faced assaults and harassment by the authorities.”
Activists have raised concerns over alleged human rights violations, with Human Rights Watch in May criticising the country for “cracking down on human rights activists and critical journalists”. The government of Azerbaijan admits that it is not perfect, as the country has only been independent since 1991, and says it is making efforts to improve the situation.
A delegation of the Referendum Assessment Mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has visited Azerbaijan`s parliament, the Azertac agency reported.
The group met with the chairman of the parliament Ogtay Asadov, who hailed the fact that the mission will monitor the referendum in Azerbaijan. “We have invited observers from international organizations and parliaments of foreign countries to every election held in Azerbaijan. And it is of vital importance to us that observers from PACE have been part of these monitoring missions.”
Asadov said international observers who will monitor the referendum have already arrived in Azerbaijan. He expressed confidence that the observers will make sure that the voting will take place in accordance with international standards.
The referendum has been very well organized, co-rapporteur of the PACE Monitoring Committee on Azerbaijan Stefan Schennach told reporters in Baku today.
“Many people have been queuing up to vote since the start of the referendum, and most of the voters are women”, said Schennach, who is on a visit to Azerbaijan to observe the constitutional referendum.
“We have been in the center of Baku. The voting procedure is organised very well. We are going to visit polling stations outside Baku,” he added.