Election Just Like in Europe But Not Really. Constitutional Referendum in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, politically, culturally and sportively, argues it wants to be considered a “European”, modern and admirable country. This becomes problematic, as nation branding can never replace state building. On September 26 the population of Azerbaijan went to the polls to give their opinion on no less than 29 proposed amendments to different chapters of the 1995 Constitution. It is no overstatement that the Referendum went by largely disregarded by the international community – and on average the Azerbaijani population did not care much.

Published on balticworlds.com on November 21, 2016

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Being inconveniently “lost” in the South Caucasus region surrounded by the three major Turkish, Iranian and Russian powers, the small Caspian Country is desperately striving to be seen as part of the European family – as a modern, stable, secular, majority-Muslim ally in a restive area. Azerbaijan strives to be integrated into the world that people envy and win international – especially Western – respect and recognition. Thus Baku is not sparing any efforts to uncover the “hidden gem” it was once and to prove its European/Western credentials. That goes through a string of spectacular cultural or sporting events but also political manifestations, which all bring a sense of unreality. In this regard there is little difference betweenthe June 2016 first-ever Formula I race in Baku and the September 26 Constitutional Referendum. Both illustrate the same respect-seeking dynamics.

As one British journalist put it: “Grand Prix are a must-have accoutrement for nouveau-riche nations”. It is a project that would “put us on the map” said Arif Rahimov, chief race organiser (and son of Azerbaijan’s sports minister). “People will no longer think that Azerbaijan is the capital of Nigeria”, added a sport official. The same applies to the Eurovision Song Contest held in 2012 and to the European “Olympic” Games organised in 2015[1]. To get noticed, Azerbaijanis organizers decided an opening ceremony with burning rings of fire in the sky and sports infrastructures including a 6000-seats “aquatic palace” would not be too extravagant. For all three performances what is striking is to what extent the “European label” is being used and emphasized. There seems to be an implicit belief in Azerbaijan that to be accepted as Europeans the country needs to do what Europeans do, but in a bit more lavish way.

A Political Imitation Game?

Similarly, in politics Azerbaijanis are borrowing common western constitutional practices and aiming at implementing them at home. On September 26 the population of Azerbaijan went to the polls to give their opinion on no less than 29 proposed amendments to different chapters of the 1995 Constitution. The suggested changes could be roughly divided into three categories: “institutional changes in the structure of executive power, terminological clarifications and the strengthening of the ensuring of human rights and freedom”. [2]  All 29 suggestions were voted on individually, still all the suggested changes were approved with no less than 83,26% of the votes in favour. The highest level of popular support was registered for the proposed amendment to Article number 100. In this case 90,96% of the voters voted in favour of removing the existing age requirement — 35 years— for becoming President of Azerbaijan. This and other changes such as extending the president’s term of office from five to seven years, providing the President with the power to dismiss the Parliament and call new elections as well as the creation of two vice-presidential posts, both of whose occupants would be appointed and dismissed by the president, appear to well complement the two previous adaptations of the constitution. First, in 2002 the Prime Minister was given power to act as interim president, the proportional electoral system was dismissed and courts were given the right to ban political parties. Second, in 2009 the three-terms limit for the president was abolished in another referendum.

On paper, these changes adjust the Azerbaijani context to resemble political reality in many democratic countries. As an Azerbaijani member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Elkhan Suleymanov pointed out: “the seven-year presidential mandate was common practice in France for 125 years until a recent constitutional change in 2000. It exists in nearly 30 countries, including Israel, Ireland and Italy, where the 7-year mandate of the President can be renewed indefinitely”. He similarly rebuffed the Venice Commission’s criticisms of the lower age limit in the amendments, which could affect the overall quality of the State governance in the country, arguing rightly “that the current general tendency in all European countries is to lower age limits, even as low as 16 years”[3]. Besides, the “Prime Minister acting as President” rule can be compared to the President of Senate in many countries. Choosing majoritarian over proportional system resembles similar systems in France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Also in Europe parties are sometimes banned and it can be argued that Turkey has become a vibrant democracy in the end of the 1990s partly thanks to the banning of the Islamist Refah party. The removal of terms limit for the President in the constitution is more difficult to justify in these terms, but also here Suleymanov found some “good” European counter-examples in Italy and in Ireland. The problem is that these examples are not really comparable, as in these contexts the President has a mere representative function and hold a lot less power than in Azerbaijan. In countries like France or the US, where Presidents are strongly involved in doing politics, there are to the contrary definite terms limit. Moreover, in none of these cases did the incumbent win three consecutive times as Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did in 2003, 2008 and 2013.

Changes without Foundation

After these three waves of constitutional adjustments, Azerbaijan’s power structure aspires to be a mix between the Unites States’ Presidential regime and the French semi-Presidential regime. The latter case illustrate a strong executive power with a President, whose legitimacy ensues from a direct election featuring universal suffrage, who preserves the right to dissolve the Parliament, theoretically the same situation as in Azerbaijan. However when venturing beyond what is written on paper and looking at the political and social reality it appears Azerbaijan is lacking the political, social and philosophical foundations that Europeans refer to as the “spirit” or “soul” of the law shaped through history, which has given European institutions their specific character and political sustainability. In the light of this is difficult to see consistency in Azerbaijan’s European orientation, political adaptations and manifestations. Azerbaijan today is severely lacking basic civil liberties, i.e. freedom of conscience, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Different reliable accounts by recognized international organizations, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch[4], estimate that there are still between 80 and 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijani jails. One of the main political oppositional actors, Ilgar Mammadov, an aspiring candidate in the 2013 Presidential Election remains in prison since then, despite court orders by the European Court of Human Rights calling for his release. Among the political prisoners are notably many religious activists. Almost all leading members of a newly formed Muslim Union civic movement are presently arrested. Still, political repression is seemingly only part of a much larger process against media- and civil organizations by the government attempting to monopolize public space and discourses. Tellingly, the last remaining oppositional newspaper, Azadliq (Freedom), is currently on the verge to collapse.


The Azerbaijani Trompe l’oeil

Based on the above it can be argued the general context matters more than manifestations of “European character”. Laws resembling those in Europe passed in a context totally lacking the spirit of political and civil liberty has no genuine value. As a matter of fact they come across only as convenient tools to reinforce authoritarian practices. But Azerbaijani authorities still insist on the opposite and may even genuinely believe it, deceived by their own Trompe l’oeil while highlighting the process and forgetting about the lack of foundation. A few remaining dissident voices and the international critics also quite often fall into such trap. In this case they were focusing on the apparent — the amendments, struggling to demonstrate how negative they were. They failed to convince almost anyone simply because, as explained above, the amendments as such are in fact not negative or do real harm. To be 18 rather 25 years old to be elected to parliament, to have a President younger than 35 years old elected for 7 rather than 5 years, or to have two rather than one Vice-President make no real difference. Perhaps understanding this difficulty, oppositional actors in Azerbaijan did not pick up on these and choose another battle, which however did not prove more successful. They instead emphasized the lack of public debate on the amendments and the lack of information to the voters. The latter, as an example, was especially problematic since the ballot only displayed the suggested changes without giving their context — assuming basically that the voters know the constitution by heart. Monitoring conducted by Institute for Reporters` Freedom and Safety (IRFS) concluded that indeed state media in Azerbaijan failed to provide the citizens with an objective, fair and impartial view of the issue.[5] The Musavat Party, in an official statement, expressed the same noting the authorities made no effort to inform the public about the proposed changes, which Musavat predicts will lead to a monarchical form of government. Not understanding this is more or less true already exemplifies that somehow part of the Azerbaijani opposition also confuses “process” and “foundation”, falling into the governmental trompe l’oeil trap. The Classic Azerbaijan Popular Front has called for a boycott of the referendum, which is less risky but nevertheless implies they lack political understanding of the situation.  No one knows what the political movement ReAl (Republican Alternative) would have done since it suspended its lobbying against the constitutional amendments after security services in a preventive move arrested one of the movement’s key figures, Natig Jafarli.

Nation branding versus State building

It is no overstatement that the September 26 Constitutional Referendum in Azerbaijan went by largely disregarded. The international community – as a collective as well as represented by individual European politicians – mainly chose to ignore it. Similarly it seems on average the Azerbaijani population did not care much. A few critical voices drowned in the general sea of political apathy and disinterest. Ensuring these supplementary amendments to the constitution rather appears to have been a project by and for the national political elite. It all comes down to nation branding. Azerbaijan, politically, culturally and sportively, argues it wants to be considered a “European”, modern and admirable country. This becomes problematic, as nation branding can never replace state building. Having purple-sprayed London taxis on the streets does not make Baku London, despite the taxis being very efficient. Having hosted the European Games is not actually like having hosted the Olympic games. Having a 7-year Presidential mandate with the right to dissolve the Parliament does not make Azerbaijan France. Having two Vice-Presidents does translate into being an USA+. Like any other country, Azerbaijan has a right and is entitled to demand respect and recognition from its peers. For this though a political reality needs to be in place — a real State built on certain social, philosophical and political traditions. Azerbaijan certainly deserves respect for what it is. For now, unfortunately, Azerbaijan is trying to buy and to show what it is not which seems unfair to its own people. The question is whether such a governmental stance, branding “European-ness” and ignoring the Azerbaijani reality is sustainable.


[1] Quotes taken from Matthew Valencia, « Heaping on the Caviar Diplomacy », 1843, The Economist, October-November 2016

[2] As explained by Azerbaijan Press Agency, the state news organ: http://en.apa.az/politics_of_azerbaijan/referendum-act-the-cabinet-of-ministers-could-not-change-to-locomotive-of-economic-reforms-analyse.html. Representatives of the opposition argue the amendments to the contrary did little to improve the human rights situation. See ex: http://azerireport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4782&Itemid=42

[3] « Baku Concerned About Venice Commission’s Partial Approach to Azerbaijan », PRNewswire, September 22, 2016, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/baku-concerned-about-venice-commissions-partial-approach-to-azerbaijan-594423531.html

[4] Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/azerbaijan/ ; Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/azerbaijan

[5] https://www.mediasupport.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/AZ-Referendum_MM-report_final.pdf

  • by Mark Brody

    Mark Brody is an independent researcher, working for various EU-related think tanks. He graduated in International Relations and has worked as a journalist, photographer and researcher.

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