Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Mechanism of Direct Democracy in Authoritarian Countries: The Case of the Constitutional Referendum in Azerbaijan

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Mechanism of Direct Democracy in Authoritarian Countries: The Case of the Constitutional Referendum in Azerbaijan

Article excerpt

The constitutional referendum that took place in Azerbaijan on September 26, 2016 noticeably changed the institutional structure of the regime. The adopted amendments allowed President Ilham Aliyev to tighten his family's control over state structures. Chief among the provisions was the installation of his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as First Vice President, a brandnew position in the regime hierarchy that enjoys important privileges. As a result, the Azerbaijani regime is now closer to a traditional dynastic regime than to a democratic system.

The Referendum Act was proposed by President Ilham Aliyev and approved by the Constitutional Court on July 18, 2016. Voters were called to vote on 40 amendments to 29 articles of the Constitution. According to the Azerbaijan Central Electoral Commission (CEC), all the proposed amendments were approved and voter turnout was 69.7 percent.1 Nonetheless, as is often the case in nondemocratic regimes, the electoral process was far from free and fair.2 Overall, the civil and political rights situation had been deteriorating since the 2013 presidential election.3 The Azerbaijani authorities passed a law that worsened conditions for NGOs in the country; meanwhile, the government continued its repression of the media.

This was the third referendum that had been held in the country since the adoption of the 1995 Constitution. (The first took place in 2002, the second in 2009.) In this time, Azerbaijan has never invited OSCE/ODIHR election observer missions (EOMs) to monitor the referenda. Instead, until 2013, OSCE/ODIHR EOMs were invited to monitor only parliamentary and presidential elections. During the 2015 parliamentary election, the Need Assessment Mission (NAM), sent by OSCE/ODIHR to evaluate the situation in the country a few months before Election Day, highlighted that "the country faces significant challenges with respect to the exercise of fundamental freedoms."4 Azerbaijan subsequently imposed several restrictions on the observers, forcing the ODIHR to cancel the mission.5 Later that year, the government took the unprecedented decision to close the OSCE office in Baku, a move which heightened Western officials' and international human rights watchdogs' criticism of Azerbaijan's record on civil society and media freedoms.6 The closure of the OSCE office was interpreted as a sign of "the aggravation of relations with the West."7

In this article, I draw on the literature addressing mechanisms of direct democracy,8 electoral integrity,9 elections in nondemocratic regimes,10 and patronal politics11 to explore the meaning of this latest referendum and its implications for the country's future political and institutional development. The overarching question that underpins the inquiry is, "Why did the regime organize the referendum?" This is a pertinent question, since Aliyev could have used other tools to achieve the same results. The Constitution of Azerbaijan establishes two distinct procedures for constitutional reform: while "changes" to the Constitution (regulated by Chapter XI) are only possible through a referendum, "amendments" (regulated by Chapter XII) can be introduced by a "constitutional law" adopted by a supermajority in two consecutive votings in Parliament.12 However, the Venice Commission noted, the difference between "changes" and "amendments" is not entirely clear, leaving the executive with the power to decide which procedure to follow.13 By investigating the regime's decision, this article therefore seeks to shed light on the meaning and purposes of the instrument of direct democracy in nondemocratic settings.

The article is based on an analysis of primary material, such as electoral observation reports, newspaper articles and interviews, as well as on secondary literature about the recent history of Azerbaijan and elections in post-Soviet countries. In the first section of the article, I present the conceptual framework and discuss the key theoretical concepts upon which the analysis is based. …

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