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Azerbaijan: Bloggers react to controversial referendum

Yesterday, Azerbaijan went to the polls to vote on amendments to the country's constitution less than six months after its president, Ilham Aliyev, won re-election to a second term in office.

Overwhelmingly passed from the votes counted so far, the changes — and especially one lifting the two-term limit on the presidency — stirred up controversy from the very beginning.

Critics, as well as blogs such as Democracy Digest, warned that the referendum was not only paving the way for Aliyev to consolidate power, but also to retain the presidency indefinitely.

On polling day, Thoughts on the road called the referendum a predictable step backwards for democracy.

Today citizens of Azerbaijan can vote on the proposal to amend the nation's constitution. This change is being done to give the citizens more freedom – the freedom to provide their unlimited support for the current president – Ilham Aliyev. (This is how the president himself has characterized the initiative!)

[…]

[…] As in the presidential election, everyone knew the vote that was desired by the president and his ruling party – and it would be really amazing if the electorate did not provide this vote.

One way or another.

Rushed through at the end of last year, plans for the referendum were also accompanied by a ban on foreign radio broadcasts in the country. Last month, Fikir Şəraiti Tikir! [AZ] commented on how quickly the referendum was arranged.

Qanunların qəbulu isə çox mürəkkəb prosesdir. Parlamentdə bu proses üç oxunuşdan ibarətdir. Bəzən layihənin müzakirəsi bir neçə il davam edir. Referendumda isə xalqdan çox qısa zamanda mürəkkəb hüquqi müddəalar barəsində qərar vermək tələb olunur. Hüquqşünasların belə çox vaxt ortaq məxrəcə gələ bilmədikləri məsələlərə dair xalq necə ciddi qərar verə bilər axı? […]

“YAP-ın” Konstitusiya düzəlişləri haqqında təşəbbüsü neft qiymətlərinin kəskin və davamlı enməsindən təlaşa düşmüş Rusiyada və Venessuellada prezidentlik müddətlərinin uzadılmasına dair konstitusiya dəyişiklikləri ilə eyni vaxta təsadüf etdi. Görünən bu, yəni. Fon olaraq, çox xoşagəlməz mənzərə yaranır. Fonu xoş olmayan prosesin sonu xoş olacağına inanmaq olarmı?

Making laws is a very complex process. In parliament it goes through three steps. Sometimes discussions about bills take years, but in this referendum people are asked to decide on complex legal matters in a very short time. How can people make a serious decision on issues which even jurists can't find common opinion on? […]

This initiative by YAP [the ruling New Azerbaijan Party] to amend the constitution coincides with a period when, anxious about falling oil prices, Russia and Venezuela initiate similar constitutional amendments regarding presidential term limits. This is what we actually witness. And it creates not a favorable background. Can a process with an unfavorable background lead to a favorable results?

Two days before the vote, and despite attempts by civil society and the opposition to unite, Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines despaired at the lack of internal resistance to the changes.

[…] as I go through the pages of “Ali&Nino” I cannot help but ponder where did the noble Azerbaijan go?

Or hundreds of Azerbaijani men and women demanding Mutallibov's resignation in front of the National Parliament?

Gone?

Or lost amid what Thomas Goltz called in his description of Azerbaijan in early 90s crocodiles “a dangerous and even vicious group of people, determined to survive”. […]

Having just visited Azerbaijan to conduct some seminars, however, Spread the Woord perhaps provides at least one possible answer to that question.

[…] during my visits to different NGO centers (where I held my trainings), local NGO representatives were complaining that the authorities were becoming more and more intolerant of their work. Its like someone is slowly sucking the oxygen out of the Azerbaijani air. I have met the most wonderful people in Azerbaijan and I’m adamant about going back in 1,5 week, but there is no doubt that the country has just taken another step back.

On the day of the referendum itself, and while Tabula Rasa [RU] noted the silence which typified many polling stations, Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines detailed the considerations she weighed up when deciding whether or not to vote.

- If I vote, will it make any difference or change anything- after all, given the fact there were around 20 questions, and the average time voters were spending was around 1min (Radio Azadliq observed this morning), and it took me about 10 minutes to go through the whole thing, how many people spent as much time as I did? Actually reading each proposed amendment and marking “yes” or “no” boxes? (And I am sure that not everyone knew each constitutional article as a whole to even know what the amendments made were all about).

- If I don't vote, will my vote be used- from my past experience I have seen personally how my father's name would be left uncrossed (as well as mine when I wasn't here during 2005 parliamentary elections), despite the fact me or my mother telling “people in charge” that he wasn't living in Azerbaijan- all proved with official papers (I was prepared to start an argument today at the poling station where I was casting my ballot if my father's name was on the list again, fortunately there was no drama as his name wasn't there).

JournalEAST [AZ], however, decided not to vote.

Artiq referendum keçərli sayılır. Mən isə getmədim. Nə üçün? Çünki əvvəlki təcrübəmdən hər şeyin qabaqcadan həll olunduğunu bilirəm. 2002-ci ildəki referendumda mən kameraman kimi iştirak etmişdim.

Həmin gün nələr görmədim ki! Referendum qutulara möhür vurulmazdan qabaq imzalı vərəqlərin atılması ilə başlamışdı həmin gün. Daha sonra müşahidəçilər gəlmişdi. Əksəriyyəti müxalifət partiyalarından idi. Bir istədim ki, yaxınlaşıb baş verənləri onlara danışım, nədənsə ürək eləmədim. 11-ci sinifdə oxuyurdum o zaman. Həm də direktorun adamı məni izləyirdi. […]

[…] Bir xeyli keçəndən sonra dəqiqləşdirdim ki, səs verənlərin bir qismi yenə də gəlib təzədən səs verirdi. Bunu da istədim müşahidəçilərə deyimç amma yenə imkan tapmadım. Lakin müşahidəçilər də saxtakarları görmüşdü. Narazılıq elədilər, amma onları da razı salan oldu. Beş on günlük çörək pulu üçün susdular.

Nəysə, bu mənzərədən sonra heç bir seçkiyə getməmişəm. […]

The referendum is over, but I haven't voted. Why? Because I know from my previous experiences that everything is already decided. In the constitutional referendum of 2002 I was a cameraman.

What I saw on that day! The referendum started with the casting of ballots already filled in into unsealed ballot boxes. Then the observers arrived. They were from opposition. I tried to inform them, but they didn't dare [do anything]. I was studying at 11th grade at school, and besides, the director's man was watching me. […]

[…] After a while, I noticed that some people came and voted again. I tried to inform the observers, but failed. However, they also noticed that. They tried to protest, but they were “silenced”. They shut up for the cost of 5-10 days bread.

After that day I haven't voted again. […]

Writing on In Mutatione Fortitudo, I also described my experience voting in the referendum.

The polling station was completely empty except for Precinct Election Commission members. Even election “observers” were outside chatting, smoking and joking. The lists where voters put their signatures after receiving their ballots were completely empty, except for some random signatures. What drew my attention was the contrast between the completely empty lists and three boxes completely full with ballots. The boxes were so full that I hardly could cast my ballot into one of them. I looked at time – it was 15:45 – empty lists, empty station, full boxes.

Blogs soon started to post evidence of such violations online with journalists from RFE/RL's Azeri service, for example, posting a video of an unknown woman casting multiple ballots at one polling station. Don Quixote from the Land of the Blind even photographed a precinct election commission member filling in a ballot.

The same blogger also made another post in which she equated the removal of presidential term limits to the end of republican rule. However, Ilgar Mammadov [AZ/RU], one of the founders of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement, doesn't agree.

Orda-burda eşidirsən ki, bəs nə bilim “bu gün Respublikanın son günüdür”, “Allah rəhmət eləsin”, “Bu gün monarxiya başlayır” və s.

Panika yaymayın. Azərbaycan Respublikasının bayrağına sadiq adamlar Respublikanı qorumaq üçün himnimizdə deyilən hər bir əmələ hazır olmalıdırlar, siz isə indidən, heç o əməllərin vaxtı belə çatmamış – və çalışaq çatmasın da, – başlamısız ağlaşmaya.

[…] Respublika uğrunda əsl, real mübarizə indi başlayır.

Now you can hear people say that “today is the Republic's last day,” “RIP”, “the Monarchy begins,” etc.

Do not panic. Those loyal to the flag of Azerbaijan Republic must be ready for everything written in our national anthem, but you are crying even before these things happen. (And let's try to prevent those things from happening.)

[…] The real struggle for the Republic starts only now.

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