Azerbaijan Heads to the Polls for Political Reform

On September 26, Azerbaijan will head to the polls to vote on twenty-nine constitutional amendments intended to reform and modernize Azerbaijan’s governing document. Voters will cast their ballots on each proposed amendment individually, months after Baku set the election and an accompanying education campaign in place. Foreign observers are on the ground and have reported favorably on press coverage and the logistics of the vote at this stage.

The referendum will address both procedural and substantive changes to the constitution. First and foremost, the presidential term will be expanded to seven years from five, bringing Azerbaijan’s presidential term in line with that of Ireland, Italy, and Israel, in a move hailed by many opposition politicians for clearing up a currently-cluttered electoral schedule. (As it stands now, Azerbaijan has back-to-back-to-back elections, presidential-municipal-parliamentary, in consecutive years.) The office of first vice-president will also be added, acting as successor to the president in the event of death or incapacity, in place of the prime minister, who tends to be among the most senior by age of the Parliament. The estimated five-million-plus Azerbaijani voters will also address updates to the constitution’s substantive rights provisions, to bring them into line with broader European norms.

In a further move to improve direct participation in Azerbaijan’s government, voters will also be asked to consider abolishing the minimum age for any presidential candidate (currently 35 years old) and allowing anyone over the age of 18 to stand for the National Assembly, the Azerbaijani parliament. This would open the highest political offices to public participation in a way that even many Western nations, including the United States, do not, and has captured the eye of many young Azerbaijanis interested in politics.

Early signs are that foreign observers and bodies are prepared to endorse the results of the vote. The Vice-President of the European Parliament, Ryszard Czarnecki, addressed media in Baku earlier this week. “We will respect the result of this referendum,” Czarnecki told reporters in Baku, “because for us the will of your nation is the most important.” Czarnecki, who is a member of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), a group of center-right MEPs, was in Azerbaijan to meet with elected officials to discuss the referendum and its preparation. The AECR itself has also lent an early imprimatur to the proceedings, saying that it has “concluded that the referendum is being organized according to the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Constitutional changes are broadly discussed in the public, and the preparations of the vote are in line with international standards.” The Alliance’s statement also added that “the changes foreseen, if adopted, are expected by all stakeholders and political leaders of the different parties to increase democratic participation and representation, but also to streamline the functioning of state administration.” Finally, the Alliance also praised Azerbaijan’s commitment to continuing to work with the Venice Commission, a European body charged with aiding the transition to democracy, especially in former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states.

Azerbaijan’s approach to constitutional reform is in line with its emphasis on direct participation in the process, a tradition that began with the Soviet Union and has accelerated since. Voter reaction has been positive, with the president and the government both being returned with strong majorities in the last two elections.

In days, Azerbaijanis will once again celebrate a public ritual they were denied until twenty-five years ago: despite Armenian occupation of a large portion of their country, despite an increasingly restive Moscow to the north and Tehran to the south, they will stand for democracy.

We will continue coverage of this referendum as it approaches.