On August 24, the people of Azerbaijan went to the polling stations to cast their vote on the constitutional amendments proposed by President Aliyev on June 22, 2002. Nearly 40 changes to 23 articles of the Constitution were put on the ballot for the choice of the voters. Although simple and logical at first sight, these proposed amendments caused much controversy in the political circles in Azerbaijan and further widened the gap between the opposition and the ruling party. As for the international community, this referendum was a first opportunity to test Azerbaijan's compliance with its Council of Europe obligations in improving the election system in the country.
For the first time since President Aliyev became the president of the country in 1993, the fragmented Azerbaijani opposition managed to unite, opposing these constitutional changes. Nearly 30 opposition parties, including the major parties Musavat, the Popular Front, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party signed a memorandum of a joint boycott to this referendum. Some of the major articles that they were protesting against were the abolishment of the proportional system of election of deputies to the national parliament; making the prime minister, not the speaker of the parliament, as caretaker President in case the president is not able to carry out his duties; and giving lower level courts the right to ban political parties. Most importantly, they argued that abolishment of proportional system will damage the multi-party system in the country and further strengthen the ruling elite. In addition to this, the opposition claimed that President Aliyev intended to appoint his son Ilham the prime-minister of the country and then retire, thus paving the way for Aliyev junior to become the next president of the country.
"Moving toward the European standards" was the official general reason behind the referendum, advanced by representatives of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. They argued that the constitution, first adopted in turbulent 1995 did not meet the current standards on human rights and that membership in the Council of Europe obliged Azerbaijan to bring its constitution in compliance with international conventions. Similarly, they argued that the majoritarian system of electing deputies is superior to the proportional one, because the elected deputies feel more responsibility in front of their voters than in front of their parties. Thus, the deputies will be more accountable and responsive to the needs of their constituencies. On the issue of transformation of presidential power to his son Ilham, President Aliyev said: "I don't understand where these rumors are coming from. There are no such plans whatsoever".
In order to foster a dialogue between the opposing sides, the OSCE's Baku office has organized five round tables, where the representatives of political parties and NGOs came together to debate the proposed amendments. Few people would call this a debate. Instead, accusation and claims poured from both sides, reaching to a point when NGO activist Leyla Yunus was called an "Armenian spy" for objecting to the proposed amendments. The U.S. State Department took a cautious approach to this referendum and instead of opposing it, called upon the Azerbaijani Government to postpone it to a later date in order to allow more time for the public to understand these proposals. The Azerbaijani Government ignored this advice. Even the large street demonstration of the united opposition on August 20th did not change the referendum plans.
August 24 came and thousands of people hurried to the polling stations from the first minute of the referendum. International observers and opposition parties who claimed a week ago that the necessary quorum of 50% would not be achieved were stunned. Polling stations were packed and almost everyone was voting in favor of the proposed changes.
Very soon, the reasons for the hyperactivity of the voters became clear: employers throughout the country had warned their staff that they would be fired in case they did not vote. Thousands of people showed up at the polling stations, trying to get their invitation cards stamped by the precinct election commission chairmen, which would indicate to their employers that they had voted. Little they cared about the questions on the ballot. This strategy even shocked the most experienced opposition members.
On August 25, the day after the referendum, the Central Election Commission announced that 88% of all voters in the country had participated in the referendum and 97% of them had approved the constitutional amendments. The opposition, in its turn, issued a joint statement on August 26, where it announced that according to their independent monitoring, only 15% of voters showed up at the polling station. The rest of the quorum was reached with the help of massive fraud, ballot stuffing, protocol tampering, voter and election commission member intimidation. "Thus, the government is lying", reads the statement. On the same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "Based on what we've heard from the U.S. embassy and other international observers... there appear to have been widespread irregularities, such as voter list fraud, multiple voting, ballot box stuffing."
Azerbaijan's first test after its admission to the Council of Europe failed, yet much struggle lies ahead, as both sides will soon start their preparations for the next year's Presidential elections.