Azerbaijan went to the polls yesterday to vote on a series of democratic reforms to its constitution. As reported here, Azerbaijanis were asked to vote on 29 separate constitutional reforms; each proposed reform was the subject of a separate vote. This allowed each voter maximum flexibility in determining which referenda to approve, and which to decline. Because of the large number of individual voting categories, the final results will not be known for some time; however, observers on the ground so far have reported the voting as a smoothly run, peaceful, highly democratic process.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and other non-governmental organizations sent observers, as they have for years. The results of those observations were the same as they have been for years: Azerbaijan received high marks for its free and fair voting process.
The observer mission for PACE praised the referendum as “a step forward towards safe, stable and sustainable development,” with the individual reforms “establishing a more efficient governance system, and implementing more meaningful reforms.” It concluded “that the referendum was organized in accordance with the national legislation and the Constitution of Azerbaijan and is considered legal and legitimate,” with a “voting process that was transparent, well-organized, efficient, and peaceful through all polling day.” These observations, together with “no serious violations observed during the counting process, is “why we respect the will of the Azerbaijani people” in this election.
The observer mission from the European People’s Party, the largest in Europe, was similarly effusive in its praise of Baku’s adherence to international standards. “In all places the procedures were according to international standards, the voters in need were properly assisted, the vast majority seemed well informed on the content and on the voting procedures, and the absence of any military or police officers was also noted.” The statement concluded, “[It] is the conviction of our Delegation that the process of the Referendum on the Constitution changes in the Republic of Azerbaijan of the 26th September 2016 has been conducted in a free, open and sound process, in accordance with the best international standards, and that it will definitively express the will of the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
Individual observers, such as Mário David, Vice-President of EPP, noted, “As an experienced election observer, I can testify that our meeting with the Central Election Committee and our observation of the opening of the ballots and procedures were according to the international standards.” Cesar Mateo Rossello Lopez, Coordinator of the Centrist Democratic International for Asia-Pacific Region, added, “It is not simply a question of yes or no. It is more democratic to have a choice among 29 changes. People are more informed about the process. Citizens received an information package delivered to their home address about the referendum and they had enough time to read it carefully. We would like to have that in Europe. It is a signal of transparency. The proposed changes are going to shorten the distance between the Azerbaijani and Western standards.”
Sentiments such as these have been the norm with Azerbaijani elections for years. In the parliamentary elections of 2015 and the presidential election of 2013, observers from international bodies and NGOs repeatedly found elections conducted according to international norms of freedom and transparency. This consistent adherence to international norms is even more remarkable in a country suffering from large-scale occupation by Armenia in its Nagorno-Karabakh province and seven surrounding provinces, a bitter artifact of the war between the two countries and Armenia’s consistent refusal to abide by international law and depart once hostilities have ended. That issue continues to weigh on the minds of Azerbaijanis. George Birnbaum, a partner with Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates, the American polling firm, reported, “Our pre-referendum survey on September 15th showed that 96.7 percent of the Azerbaijani people perceive Nagorno- Karabakh as the most important issue.”
Baku has consistently received high marks for its handling of this tragedy, which likely explains a great deal of the popular support the government (and these proposed reforms) enjoyed. “The overall support [of the referendum] is expected to be above 90 percent,” Birnbaum added, referring to the expansive pre-election polling his firm carried out.
While the formal results are not yet known, we can all celebrate as Azerbaijan once again took part in a civic ritual it was denied for so long as part of the Soviet Union: Free and fair elections, in a constitutional process that reflects the will of the people.