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#Azerbaijan referendum result is 'ringing endorsement of Aliyev plans'




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img_3751The people of Azerbaijan have voted overwhelmingly to grant President Ilham Aliyev extended powers, writes Tony Mallett in Baku. 

Some five million Azeri were eligible at the polls, held yesterday (26 September), with an overwhelming majority of the 69.7% turnout voting to allow Aliyev to extend his term of office from five-to-seven years.  Citizens also backed Aliyev’s plans to create a new first vice-president position. The result will place the holder of the post above the prime minister as second-in-command of the country. 

At the time of writing the first results (released early this morning, 27 September) showed that, of the 3,671, 707 who voted, 91.2% supported the presidential term extension from five-to-seven years, while 89% backed the new vice-president position. 

Meanwhile, 88% were in favour of the elimination of an age limit to stand for the Azerbaijan parliament. The result signifies a resounding show of support for the president and the European Parliament had already stated that it would respect the result of the poll, which addressed no-less-than 29 constitutional amendments. 

Delegations of observers from Brussels and beyond were in place for the opening and closing of the polling stations as well as during the course of day.  European People’s Party (EPP) vice-president and Portuguese MEP Mário David spoke to EU Reporter after visiting two separate polling stations in the capital Baku with part of his 11-strong delegation. 

“As an experienced election observer, I can testify that our meeting with the Central Election Committee and our observation of the opening of the ballots and procedures were according to the international standards,” he said.  In total, he said, “there were 117 international observers from 18 international organisations, including PACE (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe). There were no military or police present in the polling stations, as they are obliged to keep a distance of at least 100 metres.” 

David explained that four million packages had been sent in advance to households and reached around five million potential voters.  “Some people I talked to said that they voted against some amendments,” he said. 


His EPP colleague, Greek MEP Emmanouil Kefalogiannis, added: “Twenty-nine different votes on constitutional amendments give more room for manoeuvre. Azerbaijanis are changing their system to adjust it to Western standards and I find the referendum democratic.”  Azeri voter Nefir Memmedov told EU Reporter after casting his votes in central Baku: “It was a transparent procedure. We received the information with regards to the proposed changes one month in advance. I thought it gave me the flexibility and I had the freedom to answer ‘no’ to some of the questions.”  “I think the referendum was totally free and in line with international standards,” Memmedov added. 

The final results accurately reflected the exit-poll predictions of leading New York-based firm Arthur J. Finkelstein. The company’s international political consultant George Birnbaum said before the polls closed: “The overall support is expected to be above 90%.” 

Birnbaum added: “Our pre-referendum survey on 15 September showed that 96.7% of the Azerbaijani people perceive Nagorno-Karabakh as the most important issue. Two years ago this was the third highest concern.”  He was referring to the crisis situation near the border with Armenia which flared up again in April of this year and has seen many Azeri displaced, illegally under international law. 

The exit-poll expert added: “32,400 interviews were conducted in 100 constituencies by 900 interviewers. This is a huge sample.”  Later, speaking to a packed press conference in Baku after the polls closed on Monday evening, the EPP’s David said: “To sum up, it is the conviction of our delegation that the process of the referendum…has been conducted in a free, open and sound process, in accordance with the best international standards, and that it will definitively express the will of the people of Azerbaijan.” 

And at a press conference after the results were announced, a statement by the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe read that it “congratulates the people of Azerbaijan about the peaceful polling day”.  PACE added: “The delegation concludes that the referendum was organized in accordance with the national legislation and the Constitution of Azerbaijan and is considered legal and legitimate. 

“It notes that the voting process was transparent, well-organised, efficient and peaceful throughout the day and no serious violations were observed during the counting process and that is why we respect the will of the Azerbaijani people. 

“The result of the referendum for adoption of the modifications of the constitution expresses the willingness of the people of Azerbaijan as a step forward towards safe, stable and sustainable development of their country.” 

Earlier on polling day, the EPP delegation had met President Aliyev. Mr David told EU Reporter: “We didn’t discuss the referendum. We discussed oil prices and their overall impact on investment and economy.  “He underlined that he regretted that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is no longer on the international agenda and the different treatment of the question of Crimea in comparison to Nagorno-Karabakh. 

“He also requested practical and financial help (from the European Union) regarding the one million IDPs (internally displaced people).”  Independent of the USSR since 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan has been ruled by Aliyev since 2003. He was preceded in the role by his father, Heydar, who was president for a decade.  

Azerbaijan is a Muslim but largely secular country close to Iran, Georgia and Turkey on the western edge of the Caspian Sea. In recent years it has worked hard to sell its ‘European’ credentials. 

This effort has been largely supported by Europe and has seen the country host various events such as the 2016 European Grand Prix, Eurovision and a major European athletics tournament. Azerbaijan will also see Baku act as a key football venue for the Euro 2020 tournament. 

Prior to the referendum, the European Parliament’s Vice President Ryszard Czarnecki had told journalists in the country’s capital: “We will respect the result of this referendum, because for us the will of your nation is the most important.”

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