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Triumph of democracy or a step towards authoritarianism: Azerbaijan rewriting the constitution

Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court is due to discuss the Draft Referendum Act on amendments to the constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan submitted by the order of President Ilham Aliyev to the Constitutional Court for feedback. If approved by the Constitutional Court, the document will be submitted to referendum.

The Draft Referendum Act consists of 29 provisions covering the human rights and the functioning of the government institutions. The Draft expands the powers of the president authorizing him to appoint his first and other vice presidents and dissolve the parliament.

There are a number of technical amendments too. Under the Draft Act, when the president leaves the office, his powers are proposed to be transferred to the first vice-president. Under the current constitution, the powers of the president are transferred to the prime minister. The difference is that the prime minister is appointed by the parliament, while the first vice president is appointed by the president independently.

Another notable amendment is removal of the presidency age limit from the constitution and extension of the presidency term from 5 years to 7 years. The president gets the right to announce snap election of the president. Under the current constitution, there are such requirements for presidential candidates as not being younger than thirty five, permanently living in Azerbaijan for more than 10 years, etc. It is now proposed to remove the age limit from the constitution.

Another amendment proposes that the parliament shall be dissolved by the President, if the same convocation of the parliament makes a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan twice within one year or after the recommendation of the President of Azerbaijan and two submissions fails – within the period prescribed by law – to appoint the candidates to the post of members of Constitutional Court of Azerbaijan Republic, Supreme Court of Azerbaijan Republic and Board of Management of Central Bank of Azerbaijan Republic in numbers required for their activities.

Other amendments regulate the human rights and provide details concerning the rights and freedoms previously guaranteed by the constitution. For instance, Article 24.1 reads: “Human dignity is protected and respected,” while Article 24.3 bans “abuse of the rights.” It is proposed to add part 4 to Article 25 saying persons with physical and mental disabilities have all the rights, except the rights and freedoms they cannot exercise in view of their limited abilities, and have the responsibilities provided by the Constitution. It is proposed to add parts 5 and 6 to Article 29 – “private property implies social commitments” and “Private right for land ownership can be restricted for social justice and effective use of lands.” Observers say that provision may create legal conditions for expropriation of lands from citizens.

Article 32 will be replenished with three new provisions. According to one of them, except for the cases stipulated by law, it is not allowed to intervene in the information resources in the electronic media and paper in order to obtain information about third parties. Information technologies will not be used for the disclosure of information about private life, including those related to beliefs, religion and ethnicity, with the exception of the personal consent of the person to whom the information relates, as well as statistical processing of the anonymous nature of these and other cases prescribed by law. The terms of the personal data, the conditions of their processing, gathering, transmission, use and protection are determined by law.

After amending Article 46, the freedom of assemblies is guaranteed on condition that “the public order and public morals will not be violated.” It is proposed to remove the provision from Article 53 saying that a citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan, under no circumstances may be deprived of citizenship of the Republic of Azerbaijan. A new wording is proposed to specify that a citizen cannot be deprived of citizenship except in cases of loss of nationality by law.

Amendments are proposed to Article 60 too. They provide for the consideration of citizens' appeals to the courts within a reasonable time. Age qualification for the election of members of the parliament set at the age of 25 has been canceled. Now all people having the right to vote, i.e. at least 18 years old, will be able to run for parliament. Under the amendments, a lawmaker can be stripped of his rights, if he violates the ethical norms established by the law. 

While the authorities call these amendments a triumph of democracy, the opposition calls them regressive.

Analyzing the president-introduced reform of the state government for EADaily, a member of MIlli Majlis, functionary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party Siyavush Novruzov said the amendments will help strengthen the government and democratic institutions in the country. “President as a guarantor of the constitution has exercised his right and announced the referendum. During the nation-wide referendum, the people will decide whether to accept the reform or no. Considering that the amendments were proposed by the president who enjoys a colossal support of the people, I have no doubts that the amendments will be passed. Looking into the president’s suggestions, one will see that the main message is the protection of human rights and democratic values. I think the president’s new reform will foster the development and modernization of the country,” Novruzov said.

In his words, the extension of the presidency term from 5 years to 7 years is not an Azerbaijani know-how. That principle is available in the constitutions of such developed democratic states as France, Portugal and others. “The new amendments look to strengthen the democratic institutions and not undermine them, as some ignorant oppositionists claim. Azerbaijan bravely and confidently moves towards democratic development and no one can hold it from that way,” Novruzov said.

The deputy head of the ruling party recalled that the Constitution of Azerbaijan was adopted 20 years ago and the amendments and alterations to it were a necessity. He expressed bewilderment with the opposition protests adding that the amendments will ensure the protection of human rights and freedoms in the country.

Another pro-governmental parliamentarian, the head of the Parliamentary Committee for Legal Policy and State Building Ali Huseinli said the constitution is a live document developing with the society. That is why, he said, the president-introduced amendments were the imperative of modern era and some of its articles were presented during discussions of the previous Referendum Acts. “Except certain fundamental principles, the constitution of every country is peculiar and connected with history, development and traditions of a particular country. I am sure that the people will support the ideas of the new Referendum Act – stable and sustainable development of Azerbaijan, effective protection of human rights, and a strong institute of presidency.”

Representatives of the opposition and the civic society of Azerbaijan call the president-introduced amendments to the constitution as regressive and aimed at increasing the authoritarianism in the country. The Coordination Council of the National Council of Democratic Forces convened an emergency meeting on July 19 expressing serious concern over Ilham Aliyev’s initiative looking to retain his power. Members of the Coordination Council say the proposed amendments to the constitution actually lead to usurpation of power and even more weakening of the democratic institutions in the country.  A decision was made to make a special statement on the issue.

Musavat Party says the amendments will throw Azerbaijan back for decades and the country will face medieval despotism.  “The authorities have been regularly amending the constitution for many years already with a single goal – to increase the control over public and prevent democratic government of the country,” the Musavat Party said in a statement. 

Such essential amendments were made in the Constitution in 2009 when the authorities pushed through the right of the same person to run for president for more and two terms. Meantime, there are no conditions for normal elections, the Party said.  “The Referendum Act submitted to the Constitutional Court looks to strengthen the incumbent authoritarian regime and give an absolute power to the president,” Musavat said urging public protests against the amendments.

According to Executive Secretary of the Republican Alternative movement Natiq Jafarli, the amendments will just “shake up the regime.” “Redistribution of powers and strengthening of the president’s power will spark confrontation inside the system. With the establishment of the position of the first vice president and vice presidents, the country’s problems will not be settled and the economic crisis will not be overcome. The unwillingness to make fundamental reforms will just aggravate the situation and create more problems for the authorities,” Jafarli said.

Speaking of the political regime in present-day Azerbaijan, one should not forget that it is in a transitional period. Experts say Aliyev has got an opportunity to influence the entire political system now, including inside his team. There are no political forces able to break the ruling regime either now or in the near future. There are not even any centers for such forces to emerge from. Therefore, the president is increasing his power without reference to his opponents.

Although there are a big number of political parties, very few of them have political influence. Some experts say the opposition parties in Azerbaijan still lack a program able to enlist the support of a wide circle of voters. Furthermore, sometimes the programs of opposition parties little differ from the governmental ones. The opposition responds to the government policy just by organizing protests and makes no constructive suggestions. In addition to it, the opposition parties often conflict with each other.

Since the government oppresses the organized opposition and the opposition is unable to unite and work with voters, within the coming months and years, spontaneous protests will become more and more frequent. Anti-governmental sentiments will be growing into unsanctioned protests. Something of the kind happened when the people were protesting against devaluations of the national currency and there were violent clashes between the police and the people.

As for the external factors, the United States is perhaps more concerned over stability in Azerbaijan rather than its democratic development.  Azerbaijan’s military and strategic importance will be growing as it will be implementing energy projects passing-by Russia. Some analyst say Azerbaijan will face the fate of some Central Asian states. Human rights protection and civil rights in Azerbaijan will fade into insignificance, as U.S. and other Big Powers will start prioritizing the economic interests and security tasks.  Russia and Iran will have a tangible impact on the internal development of Azerbaijan. The relations of Baku and Moscow have improved during the recent years, and the Kremlin will rather support the incumbent authorities fearing a spillover of possible instability in Azerbaijan into its North Caucasian regions. As for Iran, it will not exacerbate the situation in Azerbaijan not to help the nationalists come to power. Otherwise, they will start stoking separatist sentiments inside Iran, like it happened under Abulfaz Elchibey.

Actually, Aliyev has enlisted the support of external powers to create a regime similar to the Persian monarchies and Central Asian autocracies.

Maksud Talibli (Baku) for EADaily

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