Azerbaijan's constitutional referendum featured a Soviet-style result, as election officials claimed that more than nine out of every 10 voters expressed approval for lifting presidential term limits. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, are describing the referendum as a charade designed to mask the introduction of hereditary rule in the country.
Overall, over 71 percent of the country's roughly 4.9 million eligible voters cast ballots in the March 18 referendum, with preliminary results showing overwhelming support for almost 50 proposed constitutional amendments, including a provision allowing for the indefinite extension of a president's tenure. Only a 25 percent turnout rate was required for the referendum results to stand.
The opposition, which had called for a boycott of the vote, is disputing the Central Election Commission's figures. At a March 19 news briefing, opposition groups called the referendum "a step back from democracy and a step forward toward monarchy."
Isa Gambar, the leader of the opposition Musavat Party, pegged the turnout rate at about 15 percent, based on the observations of opposition activists. He added that voting was marred by "mass violations" of election laws.
"I am sure that the referendum, which was designed to prolong the rule of [President Ilham] Aliyev's family, eventually will shorten it substantially. The reaction that people showed to the referendum confirms this opinion," Gambar said.
If the preliminary results stand, the path will be cleared for President Ilham Aliyev to extend his term once it ends in 2013, provided that Azerbaijan finds itself in a "state of war." A similar provision would apply to parliament. Such extensions, however, would be contingent on a Constitutional Court ruling at the request of the Central Election Commission.
The Central Election Commission said that preliminary results showed that 91.7 percent of voters backed providing such an extension of the presidential and parliamentary terms of office; at least 87 percent supported each of the remaining 48 constitutional amendments, which covered issues ranging from media rights to the functioning of local government.
International law expert Erkin Gadirli said the wording of the provision concerning the lifting of term limits left room for a broad interpretation of the amendment's intent.
"There is no such a definition as "state of war" in national law. There are only definitions of emergency and war situations, but 'state of war' is already different. How should it be defined? It is not clear yet," Gadirli said. The fact that such an extension did not apply to local government elections means that the "[p]urpose of the authorities is absolutely clear. They just want to strengthen their power and stay as long as possible," Gadirli added.
Ali Ahmadov, deputy head of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party and head of the party's referendum campaign group, dismissed opposition criticism of the vote. "[In] every election they [the opposition] give such a statement, but there is no real [basis in] fact," Ahmadov said. He claimed that the opposition had "no more than 300 observers" -- more than ten times less than YAP. "Throughout the country, we had 1,500 meetings with voters, while they could hold only five meetings with residents, three in the capital and two in regions," Ahmadov contended.
One domestic group that monitored the vote -- the Azerbaijani Civil Society Development Assistance Association -- reported that it found no serious violations with the conduct of the referendum. "We observed some interference in the regions. But these violations occurred only at a few polling stations and could not influence the results of the referendum," the organization's head, Maharram Zulfugarli, said at a March 19 briefing. The AVCIYA monitored 3,000 polling stations.
In a March 19 statement, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) noted that the vote was "transparent, well-organized and held in a peaceful atmosphere."
At the same time, PACE took issue with the lack of public debate in the run-up to the referendum. The vote was announced in December, but the official campaign lasted only 28 days. Public television allotted just three hours per week to debates about the various constitutional changes. "[T]he PACE delegation believes that more extensive discussion in the media would have better served the purpose of the referendum," the PACE statement reads.
The delegation concluded that "a better balance of power will nevertheless require further reforms in the future" and called for further improvement in the electoral process.
The government contends that continuity is the key to Azerbaijan's future development. In an interview with the Russian daily Izvestia, presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev described the referendum as "a step forward towards the country's modernization."
Mina Muradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.