Azerbaijan’s Democratic Backslide Continues With Constitutional Referendum

Azerbaijan’s Democratic Backslide Continues With Constitutional Referendum
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev casts his ballot in a constitutional referendum, Baku, Azerbaijan, Sept. 26, 2016 (AP photo by Vugar Amrullayev).

Azerbaijanis went to the polls last month to vote in a referendum on 29 amendments to the constitution that would strengthen President Ilham Aliyev’s grip on power. Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission said that over 63 percent of Azerbaijanis came out to vote, more than the 25 percent necessary to validate the poll. Exit polls show that nearly 90 percent of those that voted backed all of the amendments. The official results are due to be announced on Oct. 21.

The referendum included several controversial amendments, including one that would extend the president’s term in office from five to seven years. Presidential term limits were already scrapped in a 2009 referendum. Another amendment gives the president the power to dismiss the parliament if it passes two no-confidence measures in one year or rejects presidential nominees to important government posts. Yet another would create two vice presidential posts, both of which would be appointed by the president; the first vice president would assume the powers of the presidency if the president were to become incapacitated. Under the current system, the prime minister, who is elected by parliament, would take over the presidential duties in that scenario.

Aliyev has said the reforms are necessary to streamline the government and will help introduce political and economic reforms. But few believe that the referendum has anything to do with reform. “The regime has no intention of making fundamental, radical economic reforms necessary to create a modern economy that is less dependent on energy,” says Richard Kauzlarich, a professor at George Mason University and former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan.

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