By Liz Fuller
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has unveiled proposed amendments to the country’s constitution that opposition politicians claim are intended to enhance and prolong his and his family’s dominance of supreme power.
Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court is to rule on those amendments within days, after which they will be put to a nationwide referendum (whether individually or as a package is not yet clear).
Specifically, the amendments prolong the presidential term from five to seven years and introduce the posts of first vice president and vice president. In the event that the president becomes incapable of discharging his duties, they devolve to the first vice president (not to the prime minister as at present). Only if the first vice president is similarly incapacitated does supreme power devolve to the prime minister. It is unclear whether those changes were deemed expedient in light of the fact that incumbent Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, who has occupied the post since 1998, is now 81.
The president is also empowered to schedule early presidential elections and to dissolve parliament if within one year it twice votes no confidence in the government or rejects his proposed nominees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, or the board of the Central Bank.
The minimum age for presidential candidates (currently 35) would be abolished and the age for election to parliament lowered from 25 to 18.
Other proposed changes preclude the “abuse” of certain rights, including: the right to free assembly, which would be contingent on “public order and morality” not being violated; and the right to ownership of land, which could be restricted in the interests of “social justice and effective land use.” In addition, Azerbaijani citizenship could be withdrawn “in accordance with the law.”
Two senior veteran opposition politicians have already voiced their concerns about the impact of the planned changes.
Azerbaijan Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Kerimli described them as “an attempt to provide a constitutional foundation for the existing de facto unlimited family power [and] strengthen authoritarianism” with the aim of keeping the Aliyev clan in power for all eternity. He did not speculate whether the post of first deputy president may have been created specifically for Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban, who is a deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP).
Musavat Party Chairman Arif Gacili similarly construed the proposed changes as intended to “broaden the extent of presidential power while simultaneously reducing the influence of the parliament and cabinet of ministers.”
By contrast, Siyavush Novruzov, who is deputy executive secretary of YAP, was quoted as saying that the proposed amendments are justified.
In particular, he made the point that extending the presidential term from five to seven years makes sense, as otherwise the country would face elections in three consecutive years (presidential in 2018, municipal in 2019, and parliamentary in 2020).
Economic Or Geopolitical?
Gudrat Gasanquliyev, one of a very few parliamentarians representing a party other than YAP, praised the planned changes as justified given the current geopolitical situation. He reasoned that, if talks with Armenia on a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh “are not successful,” meaning if Armenia refuses unconditionally to relinquish control of seven districts of Azerbaijan that Armenian forces currently control, then “a bloody war awaits Azerbaijan.”
Referring to last week’s abortive attempt to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gasanquliyev suggested augmenting the proposed amendments with a provision empowering the president in the event of a military coup to deploy the armed forces without first securing parliament’s consent.
This is not the first time President Aliyev has initiated a referendum on constitutional amendments that benefited himself personally. In March 2009, the electorate was called upon to vote separately on 29 proposed changes, of which the most controversial abolished the restriction barring one person from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms.
Aliyev was first elected president following the death of his father in late 2003 and reelected for a second term in 2008. The 2009 referendum, in which 71 percent of the electorate participated, made possible his election for a third term in 2013, even though the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission commented that “as a rule, it can be said that the abolition of existing limits preventing the unlimited reelection of a President is a step back, in terms of democratic achievements.”
It is not clear whether or to what extent Aliyev’s concern to tighten his hold on power is prompted by economic rather than geopolitical considerations. The Azerbaijani manat was devalued against the U.S. dollar in February 2015, and lost around one-third of its value against the dollar in December. Last week, President Aliyev established a special Council for Financial Stability headed by Rasizade whose composition largely duplicates that of cabinet members with responsibility for the economy. Analysts quoted by the news portal Caucasian Knot were skeptical whether it will succeed in its task.