The democratic bug has spread so far and wide that even dictators are infected by it and find it useful to strengthen their grip on power. They use the democracy card to convince opponents that they respect the wishes of the people while they subvert the process so much that it makes mockery of the whole exercise. The subversion process starts with denying opposition candidates the opportunity to run for office. Electoral boundaries are manipulated to disadvantage opponents. There is no question of allowing them airtime on television; this is reserved exclusively for the man in power and his “ruling” party to extol his virtues and how fortunate people are to have such a wise leader. Opposition rallies are attacked and people attending them are beaten up. All this is capped by stuffing ballot boxes to ensure the man in power wins.
In the West, the process of elections has been refined to such a degree that no matter who wins, the establishment remains in control. Take the example of the US. It does not matter whether a Democrat or a Republican becomes the president; either would do what the US establishment tells him to do. We are witnessing this phenomenon before our eyes with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. While he has come to office on a populist wave and sentiment, he is forced to do what big business and banks demand of him. Apart from minor variations, one would be hard pressed to find much difference in the policies he is pursuing from those of his predecessor who was widely despised throughout most of his presidency.
This is even more evident in third world and emerging societies. Oil and gas-rich Azerbaijan just had a referendum. There were 50 questions people were required to approve of which the most crucial was lifting presidential term limits. Held on March 18, election officials claimed that 90 percent of the voters approved lifting presidential term limits. Opposition leaders questioned the voter-turnout and denounced the whole exercise of ending term limits as designed to introduce hereditary rule in the country. Official voter turnout was put at 71 percent while the opposition said it was less than 15 percent. For the referendum results to be valid, a mere 25 percent turnout rate was required.
The opposition had called for a boycott of the vote and naturally disputed the Central Election Commission’s figures. At a March 19 news briefing, opposition groups called the referendum “a step back from democracy and a step forward toward monarchy.” Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party, not only questioned official turnout figures but also said that voting was marred by “mass violations” of election laws. “I am sure that the referendum, which was designed to prolong the rule of [President Ilham] Aliyev’s family, eventually will shorten it substantially. The reaction that people showed to the referendum confirms this opinion,” Gambar said.
While opposition politicians try to rubbish the results and downplay voter turnout, excessively large turnout figures are clearly cooked up by overzealous state officials. This is their job and they want to keep it. The referendum will now clear the path for President Aliyev to extend his term once it ends in 2013. There is, however, a caveat in this: he could do so provided Azerbaijan finds itself in a “state of war.” A similar provision would apply to parliament. Such extensions would be contingent on a Constitutional Court ruling at the request of the Central Election Commission. International law expert Erkin Gadirli said the wording of the provision concerning the lifting of term limits left room for a broad interpretation of the amendment’s intent. “There is no such definition as ‘state of war’ in national law. There are only definitions of emergency and war situations, but ‘state of war’ is different. How should it be defined? It is not clear yet,” Gadirli said. The fact that such an extension did not apply to local government elections means that the “purpose of the authorities is absolutely clear. They just want to strengthen their power and stay as long as possible,” Gadirli added.
Ali Ahmadov, deputy head of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party and head of the party’s referendum campaign group, dismissed opposition criticism of the vote. “In every election they [the opposition] give such a statement, but there is no real [basis in] fact,” Ahmadov said. He claimed that the opposition had “no more than 300 observers” –” one-tenth of those deployed by the ruling YAP. “Throughout the country, we had 1,500 meetings with voters, while they could hold only five meetings with residents, three in the capital and two in regions,” Ahmadov contended. What he left unsaid was that government functionaries placed all kinds of hurdles in their way to do so.
Even the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that monitored the vote and said it was “transparent, well-organized and held in a peaceful atmosphere,” issued a statement on March 19 to say that there was lack of public debate in the run-up to the referendum. The vote was announced in December, but the official campaign lasted only 28 days. Public television allotted just three hours per week to debates about the various constitutional changes. “The PACE delegation believes that more extensive discussion in the media would have better served the purpose of the referendum,” the statement said. Clearly such short time did not facilitate the discussion of many vital issues considering there were 50 items on the referendum ballot to enable Azerbaijan has nearly 4.9 million registered voters to understand them fully.
There were other controversial changes like putting restrictions on the media’s ability to photograph, film and record individuals without their consent, and authorized central government supervision of local government “activities.” Both were intended to strengthen government control of the media as well as local governments where individuals or opposition members can mobilize support against the regime.
President Ilham Aliyev inherited the presidency from his father, Gaidar Aliyev who was a Soviet communist party functionary. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the senior Aliyev was left in power by default. He continued along the same Soviet ways to exercise control. Upon his death, his son Ilham took over and now he is trying to emulate his father’s old ways. Like father, like son, as the saying goes, with a little bit of help from democracy that is fit for a king.