Azerbaijanis will next month be asked to vote in a referendum to approve a raft of constitutional changes, the need for which has not been properly explained yet to the Azerbaijani people. Commonspace.eu guest commentator from Azerbaijan, writing under the non-de-plume Du Roy, suggests that whilst there has been much speculation about what has brought about these constitutional amendments, one explanation could be that the authorities are feeling the need for a more inclusive and pluralistic parliament to address challenges to their legitimacy domestically and internationally, and are taking the precaution of ensuring that in that eventuality Presidential authority will prevail.
Letter from Baku, by Du Roy
On 26 September, Azerbaijanis will be voting on the amendments to the country's Constitution which have been proposed by the government, and which have already received many comments by the expert community, although not necessarily in an adequate amount.
The proposed amendments cover a wide range of issues, including restrictions on the use of land and property for social use, and defining the concept of 'national' - the meaning of which has changed considerably in Azerbaijan since the early years of independence.
However, it is the amendments introducing the institution of the "vice presidency", and increasing the presidential power over parliament, that carry particular importance, as they address the fundamentals of the political system in the country.
Before expressing my own comments however, there is one important question that needs to be asked. and answered: which significant social or political processes within the society over the time that has passed since the adoption of the constitution in 1995 have convinced the initiators of the amendments that the current political system should be changed as it does not respond to the new challenges, and what are those challenges? This is the question that needs to be answered by the initiators, supporters and promoters of the amendments suggested to the political system. To put it simply, what is the rationale behind the constitutional changes? The text is provided but not the context.
The absence of such explanations has resulted in endless speculations about the initiative, even though there could be good reform-oriented rationale behind the changes being proposed that Azerbaijani society could potentially support.
One could also be concerned about the cohesion within the model of republic that was adopted in the 1990s, which simply copy-pasted a European presidential republic model - not only in Azerbaijan but in all other post-Soviet republics. The model adopted at that time was not, obviously, the historically socially developed product of Azerbaijani society, but a vision to which we wanted to tie ourselves to. Or did we indeed? One wonders!
'Nationalization' or 'localization' of the model of political system adopted in 1990s has been gaining pace since, one that could also be interrupted as deviation from that vision of a democratic republic. Changes made to the constitution since, in particular in 2003 and 2009 seem to erode that vision.
This also raises a question of how far, and how much, Azerbaijani society was aware and sure about what was envisioned at that time. On the one hand, considering that it was a copy-paste model not an indigenous historical and social product, nothing could be more normal than seeing it being 'nationalized' or 'localized' over time, at least to some extent. On the other hand, too much 'nationalization' or 'localization' of the model brings the risk of the model losing its cohesiveness and losing its initial spirit. For instance, the suggested amendments give the power to the president to dissolve parliament. It is an element that can be found in parliamentary republics where political fragmentation or inconclusive election results can result in a failure to form a government leading to an institutional crisis, whereby the president would have a right to dissolve parliament. This is the reason why in this model the president holds such power. It is conditioned on their being a government crisis in its rationale. Yet, in presidential republics, where the president is directly elected by the people, and where he is the only person with the right to form the government this risk does not exist. The amendments being proposed to the Azerbaijani constitution are therefore yet another blow to the system of checks and balances between President and Parliament. The erosion of this system started with the first attempt to the 'nationalization' of the constitution in 2003. On that occasion it was decided that if the Parliament rejected the candidate proposed by the president for the post of prime Minister on three occasions the President may appoint the prime minister without the consent of the Parliament.
So, in the current Azerbaijani system there is already no real risk of a stalemate leading to a government crisis which could justify the dissolution of the parliament by the president. Of course, it is another issue that one person elected by people cannot take away the mandates of 125 MPs elected by people. In principle, no elected person is superior to another elected person in democracies. Concerns have also been raised by experts that as foreseen in the suggested amendments, in the case the first vice president, who is to be appointed by the president and will not be an elected person, replaces the president if the latter loses his capacities, he could dissolve parliament and take away the mandate of 125 elected MPs. One might also see potential for another type of constitutional crisis within the suggested amendments - the president wanting to dissolve the parliament, while parliament, with the support of the minimum number required, namely 95 MPs, is in the process of impeaching him.
These implications of the changes being proposed are enough to argue that the Constitution will lose significantly, if these amendments are accepted in the referendum, changing significantly the spirit of the original constitution.
These amendments to the Constitution would also mean changing the vision and spirit of the 1990 Constitution. Those proposing the amendments have not only not explained their rationale, they have also failed to explain their own vision. This left the door open for much speculation, and even conspiracy theories.
Many commentators suggested that article 98 gives some reason to think about possibly more complicated developments in the future, if these amendments are adopted. Article 98 in essence introduces strong control by the executive branch over Parliament, by providing multiple cases that could trigger the dissolution of the Parliament, such as not approving twice the Cabinet of Ministers, the members of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Board of the Central Bank. In the current Azerbaijani reality there is no reason for this, as the ruling party has a huge majority in the parliament anyway and such a scenario is unthinkable.
There is however speculation that such powers of the executive branch over Parliament could be needed in the future if Parliament becomes more inclusive and pluralistic, with MPs from different opposition groups.
Is an inclusive parliament where opposition parties and groups are represented, but which is tightly managed by the Executive what the suggested amendments foresee? What is the context that could bring about such a change? Is it the increasingly weakened legitimacy of the authorities, both domestically and internationally?
This opinion was contributed for commonspace.eu by a political analyst in Azerbaijan, writing under the nom-de-plume Du Roy.
A referendum on constitutional changes will be held in Azerbaijan on 26 September. There will be daily coverage of the campaign and the process on commonspace.eu