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Azerbaijani Vote Bolsters Aliev Succession

A controversial referendum on changes to Azerbaijan's constitution later this month will strengthen Ilham Aliev's bid to succeed his father as president.
By Kamal Ali

President Heidar Aliev and his son Ilham look set to be main beneficiaries of a constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan scheduled for August 24.


Aliev is pressing ahead with the ballot, despite international requests for it to be postponed and an opposition boycott. If, as expected, the amendments to the constitution are voted through, the elder Aliev would be handed a mechanism which he could employ to ensure that his son succeeds him.


Formally, the vote has been called because Baku needs to alter its 1995 constitution in order to keep pace with its new international obligations. Aliev said that Azerbaijan's accession to the Council of Europe last year and its signing up to a series of conventions required both amendments and additions to the constitution, which can only be approved in a nationwide vote.


Thirty-nine amendments will be voted on in 20 articles. Most of them relate to Azerbaijan's human rights obligations. For example, one should clarify that the country's citizens have a right to an alternative to army conscription.


However, the authorities have used the vote as an opportunity to reshape the constitution in other ways. The proposed change that has attracted the most attention is an amendment to article 105. If this is voted through, the premier, not, as is currently the case, the speaker of parliament, becomes the acting head of state - for the three-month period before elections - in the event of the latter stepping down. All the elder Aliev has to do is appoint his son prime minister to pave the way for a smooth succession.


This is an exact copy of the article in the Russian constitution, under which President Yeltsin stepped down on New Year's Eve 1999, handing over power to his then prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who was then elected Russian president with a big majority three months later.


Many observers believe that this change is designed to propel Ilham Aliev towards the presidency of Azerbaijan. So far the elder Aliev has said he will run for a third term as president in the next elections, due in the autumn of 2003, but he is now 79 and reported to be in poor health.


Under current arrangements, it is difficult for the president to remove the current speaker of parliament, Murtuz Aleskerov, and replace him with his son. Aleskerov is one of Heidar Aliev old guard supporters and his forced resignation would lead to splits in the governing elite, some of whom are suspicious of Ilham Aliev. The current premier Artur Rasizade is a less prominent figure, who can be removed much more easily.


Aliev is also taking the opportunity to propose changes to the parliamentary electoral law, so that all seats in the assembly will from now be determined in a run-off vote. Currently, some are elected by proportional representation.


Opposition politicians have strongly condemned the abolition of proportional representation, seeing it as a direct blow at Azerbaijan's party system. Etibar Mamedov, leader of the National Independence Party, called it "a cardinal change in the constitution", which would result in "a concentration of power in the hands of the president and the stripping parliamentary power".


With feelings running high, forty-five deputies called a special session of parliament on July 29 to debate the referendum. Opposition deputies tried to block a resolution approving it but were strongly defeated by the pro-presidential majority. Following this, the opposition took a collective decision to boycott the ballot.


The international community is not condemning the vote, but foreign governments told Aliev that more time was needed for national debate. The OSCE is not sending observers, on the grounds that it was not given enough warning of the referendum.


Bowing to pressure from the Council of Europe and the US State Department, the Azerbaijani authorities have broken the ballot down into eight parts, so that voters will not have to give a blanket "yes" or "no" to all the proposed changes. They will now give their verdict on eight different groups of questions.


The ballot form is three pages long and written in the Latin script, which many Azerbaijanis are unaccustomed to, so long lines can be expected at polling stations as voters take time to read and understand all the proposed amendments.


No one is any doubt about the result, however. "It's not hard to predict the outcome," said Eldar Ismailov, director of the centre For a Civic Society. "In the morning it will be announced that voting on the whole went well, there were of course some small problems, but the people agree to the results. It will be very hard for a common voter to make sense of such a 'work of literature' as this ballot form. It is so complicated that a normal voter won't understand what is required of him."


"The problem is not the form of the ballot," commented Zardusht Alizade, co-chairman of the Social Democratic Party. "It could be blue or green or divided into 200 or 245 parts. What meaning does that have, when the result is known in advance? It's simply absurd to trust a referendum or election held by Heidar Aliev."


Kamal Ali is a correspondent with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku. Shahin Rzayev, IWPR editor in Baku, also contributed to this article.