The Constitutional Referendum in Azerbaijan Lacks Credibility
Restrictions on free expression, assembly and association and reports of ballot stuffing and vote fraud have undermined the credibility of Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said today. The government crackdowns on independent media, civil society, political activists and ordinary citizens eliminated any possibility that the vote would be free or fair.
“This referendum is a full-frontal assault on democracy”, said IRFS Director Emin Huseynov. “Instead of the long-promised political reform and democratisation, the hastily passed amendments facilitate unaccountable power and a deepening dictatorship.”
Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on Tuesday (27 September) that the constitutional changes were supported by more than 90 percent of the voters, with an official voter turnout of 69.7 percent. On 18 July 2016, President Aliyev signed a decree submitting the draft Referendum Act “On Amendments to the Constitution of Azerbaijan Republic” to the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court approved the Referendum Act on 25 July 2016, following which President Aliyev set the referendum for 26 September 2016.
IRFS has repeatedly raised concerns that many internationally recognised elements for a fair referendum process were missing – particularly the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The government also failed to provide equal access to government media for opponents of the draft amendments, or ensure that the election commission acted in an impartial, independent, and accountable manner.
As more evidence came to light of violations in the poll on Monday it became clear that skewed media coverage, restrictions on debate and campaigning, was supplemented by an array of violations on voting day itself.
The constitutional reform includes the extension of the presidential term in office to seven years from five, creation of the office of vice-president, and eliminating age limits for president, among other changes. On 20 September, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued a preliminary opinion in which it said that many proposed constitutional changes would severely upset the balance of power and give “unprecedented” control to the president.
A free and vibrant media, space for civil society organisations and opposition parties to operate, and full access for international and domestic election observers are essential to ensuring free and fair elections ‘The fact that the authorities chose not to invite OSCE/ODIHR to observe the vote; that they completely ignored the preliminary opinion by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe criticising most of the proposed amendments; that they silenced the referendum campaigners clearly suggest that the outcome of the vote has been pre-determined by Aliyev’s regime’, Huseynov said.
The day of the referendum was marred by electoral fraud – ballot stuffing and multiple votes by the same individuals in different districts occurred on a large scale. The extent of fraud during the referendum vote demonstrates that the results certainly do not represent the will of the Azerbaijani population but merely reflect the interests of the ruling regime.
IRFS deplores the undemocratic attempt by the government of Azerbaijan to amend the Constitution by adding the provisions that will allow the President Ilham Aliyev to be re-elected for an unlimited number of 7-year terms, appoint Vice-Presidents without consulting any other institutions, dismiss the Parliament at his discretion and call for early elections as well as to lay groundwork for the transfer of power to his son by abolishing the age requirement for the presidential elections.
The abovementioned amendments pose a serious threat to democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan. IRFS is also extremely concerned about the changes to the Constitution that will most likely lead to mass violations of socio-economic rights enabling the authorities to expropriate private property under the pretext of interest of social justice and effective use of land.
The amendments to the Constitution of Azerbaijan destroy the hope of Azerbaijani society for political and socio-economic reforms that are desperately needed amid the difficult economic situation resulting from the continuous decline in energy prices.
The two-month monitoring of the situation leading up to the constitutional referendum has revealed that the authorities unjustifiably shut down a private television station ANS TV, forced the leading opposition newspaper Azadliq to cease publication in print, and, with the help of Turkish government, suspended the broadcast of oppositional TV channel Azerbaycan Saati as well as programmes of Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty via TURKSAT satellite.
The Central Election Commission (CEC), which is under full control of the government, refused to register opposition groups for campaigning against the referendum.
National legislation in Azerbaijan provides for free airtime on national television to be allocated for the groups campaigning in relation to the referendum. The opposition groups were prevented from claiming the free airtime foreseen by law whereas pro-governmental groups voluntarily declined to campaign on national television. As a result, due to the dearth of information, the majority of the population did not have an adequate understanding of the proposed amendments. Capitalising on the information vacuum surrounding the referendum, the government used all the media channels to spread the narrative that the proposed amendments are a necessary continuation of reforms started by Ilham Aliyev.
Civil society actors, including local and international NGOs, were also unable to effectively monitor the voting process due to the over two-year long crackdown by the government. After the first opposition rally that attracted around 10 thousand protesters, the authorities began repressions against the organisers and protesters – dozens of activists were detained and subject to beatings. All these illegal actions by authorities were done publicly in front of journalists in order to deter people from attending protests.
On the day of the vote, ССTV cameras were installed in 1000 out of 5627 electoral polling stations that recorded thousands of serious voting violations. The video recordings from the polling stations are going to be kept by the CEC for the upcoming five years. Revisiting these recordings would unequivocally demonstrate that the turnout on the voting day was two to three times less than the reported 69.7 percent. Furthermore, the video tapes also recorded hundreds of cases of ballot stuffing and other electoral violations. The aforementioned violations constitute a sufficient basis for the annulment of the results of the referendum.
IRFS calls on the Central Election Commission to cancel the results of the constitutional referendum due to the large-scale electoral fraud.
IRFS appeals to the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to deplore a biased, controversial statement issued by the ad-hoc assessment mission, and instead provide for an objective and comprehensive assessment of the referendum and evaluate whether the new constitutional amendments are compatible with Azerbaijan’s accession commitments laid out in the PACE’s Opinion 222 (2000) on Azerbaijan’s request for membership
Furthermore, IRFS calls on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, European Parliament and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to initiate disciplinary investigation regarding their members that, without having a mandate to monitor the constitutional referendum, arrived to Azerbaijan on the initiation by the President. In the spirit of the traditional European lobbyists loyal to Aliyev, they gave a positive assessment of the referendum confirming its legitimacy.
As long as democratic governance and respect for human rights are pushed aside by Azerbaijan’s bilateral and multilateral partners in favour of energy and security cooperation, Azerbaijan’s long-term stability is at serious risk.