Azerbaijan’s Referendum: Every Vote – and More – Counts
In Azerbaijan, apparent national enthusiasm for prolonging the rule of the ex-Soviet republic’s longtime leader, Ilham Aliyev, has resulted in a vote-count total for a referendum on the proposed change that exceeds 100 percent.
The energy-blessed Caucasus country’s September 26 referendum on 29 constitutional amendments included a proposal to extend the presidential term in office from five to seven years. The Central Election Commission announced that day that a whopping 91.2 percent of 2,669,430 voters approved the extension (among other amendments) and 4.7 percent voted against, while 4.5 percent of the votes were invalidated. It all adds up to an odd total of 100.4 percent.
The official results report that 110,095 of the votes were invalidated, which usually would amount to 4.1 percent of the total, but Azerbaijan’s election commission seems to disagree.
Critics, however, hold that mathematical wonders can indeed happen under Aliyev’s dynastic and clannish rule. Democracy watchdogs long have maintained that Ilham Aliyev, who took over the presidency in 2003 from his late father, Heydar Aliyev, has all of Azerbaijan’s government offices, including the election commission, under his thumb.
The vote-tally results, therefore, did not come as a surprise to Emin Milli, director of Meydan TV, an independent Azerbaijani news outlet based in Berlin. Milli, a former political prisoner, pointed out the count snafu on his widely followed Facebook page.
Others have been watching the vote as well. Human-rights watchdogs condemned a wave of arrests and intimidation tactics that preceded the poll. Aliyev has been widely accused of amassing and perpetuating power by running roughshod over political opponents, democracy activists and critical journalists, and also through controversial constitutional changes.
A 2009 referendum, for instance, led to scrapping limits on consecutive presidential terms, enabling Aliyev to become president-for-life. Now, by dint of this latest reform, this potentially lifelong rule will be less frequently interrupted by an election.
The road to power may also have been opened for the youngest member of the Aliyev family, the president’s son, 19-year-old Heydar Aliyev, Meydan.tv reported. Two other amendments remove the minimum-age requirement (35) for president and lower the minimum for parliament to 18 years old from 25. Azerbaijan’s next presidential and parliamentary elections will now both be held in 2020.
Western governments’ reactions to these changes have been less than robust. The European Union merely advised Azerbaijan to take into consideration an assessment of the amendments from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which found that the changes would give the president an “unbelievable” amount of power.
Meanwhile, Washington attempted to straddle the fence – not wanting to alienate a strategic partner, but also not wanting to endorse the changes wholeheartedly.
The day after the referendum, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was grilled by reporters about Washington’s willingness to go along with the outcome of the poll in Azerbaijan, despite concerns over “voting irregularities.” When asked if it is “good that one family ruled that country for so long and that the son of the previous ruler can now rule it for even longer,” Toner responded that the US cannot dictate term limits to Azerbaijan.