Vol. 2, No. 7 (April 01, 2009)

Not a defining moment: Azerbaijan’s referendum and international standards

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

In advance of Azerbaijan’s referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow Ilham Aliyev to serve more than two consecutive terms as president, some commentators both in Baku and abroad treated this event as a defining moment in the history of Azerbaijan, as an event that had the potential to shift Azerbaijan from the category of those post-Soviet states that are moving toward greater openness and democracy to that of countries in that region which have been moving in exactly the opposite direction.

But now that the referendum has taken place, with Azerbaijani voters overwhelmingly approving the amendments and with almost all observers indicating that the vote itself was conducted according to international standards, it has become obvious that this referendum by itself did not mean that Azerbaijan has fundamentally changed the course its government has pursued and its people approved over the past 15 years or that the country has moved, to paraphrase Kipling, from the easternmost of the western part of the former Soviet space to the westernmost part of Central Asia.

That becomes obvious if one considers both the history of term limits and the implications of their application or non-application in Azerbaijan in the future.  The first thing to recognize is that most countries do not have term limits and that the post-Soviet states largely do, not because they decided that was a prerequisite for democratic development but because they modeled some but far from all their constitutional provisions on those of the United States which does limit its chief executive to two terms in office.

Such arrangements were promoted by the United States and accepted with little debate by post-Soviet states like Azerbaijan.  As a result, few of those countries paid much attention to the history of this question in the United States or the implications of term limits both in the US and in their countries.  And consequently, only now that the leaders of some post-Soviet states are running up against this limitation are leaders, governments and peoples being forced to confront this situation.

The first thing to point out is that the United States did not have constitutionally-set term limits for most of its history.  George Washington, the first president of the US and truly the father of his country, set the tradition.  He retired after his second term, but neither Washington nor the other founders thought it would be a good idea to limit the number of times that someone could be elected.

On the one hand, they believed that it would be unfortunate to convert an incumbent president into a lame duck after his second election.  If everyone knew that he could not be re-elected, his power would inevitably decline.  And on the other, they recognized as we know from discussions at the Constitutional Convention that there might be extraordinary times in which a president could and should serve for more terms. 

For the first 150 years of American history, presidents followed Washington’s lead, a reflection of their judgment that there were no good reasons to break with that tradition.  But in the 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, having guided the US through the Great Depression and faced with the threat of war, ran first for a third term and then a fourth, actions that he and others considered an extraordinary response to extraordinary times by an extraordinary political leader.

But after FDR’s death near the start of his fourth term, Republicans in Congress decided to push through a Constitutional amendment that would limit all future presidents to only two terms.  Their success in amending the US Constitution thus “legalized” what had been a fundamentally “political” tradition.  And it is worth noting that in the case of every popular president of the US since that time, there have been suggestions that this amendment should be repealed to allow that individual to continue to serve. 

To date, however, the United States has not taken that step, and because of its pre-eminence in the world especially at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many post-Soviet states, lacking an independent historical tradition and seeking approval from Washington, included term limits in their constitutions, with little thought of the implications of that arrangement in the extraordinary times that many of them continue to face.

Different post-Soviet countries more recently have struggled with the implications of such limits.  Perhaps the most comical was what happened in the Russian Federation, when Vladimir Putin faced with a ban on his re-election to a third term arranged to become prime minister and to install someone he expected to be able to control as his successor in the Russian presidency.  While many respected Putin’s decision to obey the constitution, few thought then or now that the way he did so necessarily and immediately contributed to the development of a more open and democratic Russia, although that remains a possibility.

Azerbaijan chose a different approach: It sought to follow the constitution by changing it rather than subverting it by making the kind of arrangements that Putin imposed on his country in the name of “defending” the country’s basic law.  And consequently, Azerbaijan has taken another step away from the American-supplied cookie cutter approach to democratic development that it and many other post-Soviet states accepted in the 1990s.

As every observer – domestic and foreign – acknowledged, the Azerbaijani people voted overwhelmingly to lift the constitutional ban on more than two presidential terms, the result of both Baku’s efforts to promote precisely that result and the understanding of almost all Azerbaijanis that they and their country live in an extraordinarily dangerous neighborhood at an extraordinarily difficult time. 

Again, according to almost all analysts and commentators, Ilham Aliyev will not only run but win the presidency once or perhaps even several more times, a reflection of the regime he has built and the recognition of his particular skills by the population.  But the amendments to the Azerbaijani Constitution that the Azerbaijani people approved do not mean that he has become “president for life.”  Indeed, one can argue that by eliminating a provision that resulted from unique conjunction of events in the US after 1945 and then in Azerbaijan after 1991, this referendum sets the stage for what the tradition of two terms George Washington established to be realized at some point in the future.

There are at least three reasons for drawing that conclusion.  First, President Aliyev and his government sufficiently respect the Constitution that they were convinced they had to amend it rather than ignore it or subvert it as leaders in some neighboring countries have done.  As a result, more and more Azerbaijanis are likely to conclude that the Constitution and all of its various guarantees are something to be taken seriously as well.

Second, by escaping a Constitutional arrangement that would have left him a lame duck and hence less able to navigate the difficult times ahead, including but not limited to the economic shocks of declining petroleum prices and Armenia’s continuing occupation of more than a fifth of Azerbaijani territory, President Aliyev is in a stronger position to defend the interests of his country.  Such enormous challenges are why FDR ran for a third and fourth term, as some who have criticized the Azerbaijani referendum prefer to forget.

And third, this referendum has yet another consequence that few people are yet thinking about.  It has the effect of focusing the attention of Azerbaijanis on the future.  George Washington’s decision to retire after a second term was his way of opening the way to the rise of a new generation of leaders.  Many believed that having term limits could force that process.  But even when after such constitutional limitations are lifted, the challenge of developing new generations of leadership does not go away.  Instead, it may become even more compelling.