Shaffer, Research Director, Caspian Studies Program and Azerbaijan Initiative, JFK School of Government, Harvard University
In the past year, Azerbaijan has intensively engaged in writing and enacting new legislation to further institutionalize government in the state. Legislation has been enacted in the civil sphere, regulating the judicial system and in the field of education.
Inauguration of his Excellency Heydar Aliyev as the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan
The Azerbaijani Constitution, the supreme legal document in the republic, was adopted in November 1995. According to this document, there is no state religion in Azerbaijan and the republic is a secular state with clear separation between state and religion. Further, it is specified that the public educational system must be secular. The Constitution stipulates that each citizen is entitled to equal rights "irrespective of race, nationality, religion, gender, origin, property status, social position, convictions, political party, trade union organization and social affiliation." In addition, the Constitution declares the right to free enterprise, and bars monopolies and unfair competition in economic relations. The official language of the state is Azerbaijani, but all citizens have the right to free use of their native language. An important advance in formalizing the rights of many of the residents of Azerbaijan, especially refugees from other parts of the former Soviet Union, was the adoption of the Law on Citizenship, approved in September 1998.
The Constitution provides for a division of power between three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The President is the head of state, bearing ultimate responsibility for both internal and external matters, and is authorized to appoint and dismiss members of the cabinet, including the Prime Minister. The President serves as Commander in Chief of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. Presidential decrees are a frequently used mechanism of governance in Azerbaijan.
The powers of the President include drawing up the state budget (subject to ratification by the Milli Mejlis); designation of state economic and social programs; appointment of local governors; appointment and removal of members of the board of the National Bank; concluding of intergovernmental treaties (some of which require approval of the Milli Mejlis), and declaration of war and concluding of peace (requiring approval of the Milli Mejlis). In addition, the President has the authority to declare martial law and a state of emergency in part or all of the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The President is elected in general elections for a term of five years and can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. To be elected, a presidential candidate must receive at least two-thirds of the votes of the participants in the election. If none of the candidates receive this amount in the first round of elections, a second round is held on the second Sunday after it. If the President retires or dies before the end of his term, new presidential elections are to be held within three months. In the interim, the Chairperson of the Milli Mejlis (National Parliament) performs the duties of the President. If during this period the Chairman of the Parliament resigns or cannot fulfill the duties, the authority of the President is passed to the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister cannot exercise the presidential duties, the Parliament is authorized to elect another official to serve temporarily as President.
House of Government in Baku
The Cabinet of Ministers is subordinate to the President and its aim is the implementation of the President's policies and duties. In order to achieve this goal, the Cabinet of Ministers ensures the implementation of the state budget; financial, credit, monetary policy; and the state social programs.
The National Parliament of the Republic of Azerbaijan is a unicameral body consisting of 125 members, of whom 100 are elected in local contests and an additional 25 from national party lists. Parliamentary elections are to be held every five years, on the first Sunday of November. The Parliament holds two regular sessions - the spring session (February 1 -May 31), and the fall session (September 30 -December 30.) Special sessions can be summoned by the Chairman of the Milli Mejlis, at the request of the President. The Parliament's responsibilities include determining legislation affecting human and civil rights and freedoms, elections, the court system, civil law, inheritance, rights of ownership, the legal regime of state, private and municipal property, financial activity, taxes and payments, labor relations and social security, ratification and rejection of international treaties, communication and transport, customs, banking, accounting and insurance. The laws and resolutions enacted by the Parliament come into effect from the day of their publication unless specified otherwise in the legislation. The President does not have the right to dissolve the Parliament, but he does have the right to veto its decisions. To override a presidential veto, the Milli Mejlis must have a majority of 95 votes.
At this point, the judicial branch has the largest gap between its formal and its actual powers. This branch has not received public confidence in its professionalism and impartiality, which requires improvement. The judicial branch includes a Supreme Court, Economic Court and Constitutional Court. The President, subject to approval by the Parliament, nominates the judges in these three courts. The Constitutional Court consists of nine judges and is authorized to review the constitutionality of the laws of the republic, presidential decrees, regulations of the central government authorities, and signatures on treaties, as well as settling disputes connected to the division of power between the legislative and executive branches. In addition, the Constitutional Court decides on issues affecting the banning of political parties or other organizations. The Constitutional Court is also authorized to interpret the Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan at the request of the President, the Parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers, General Prosecutor's Office and the Ali Mejlis (Supreme Parliament) of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. Judges of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan are nominated by the President and approved by the Parliament. The Economic Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan is the highest legal body deciding economic disputes. Judges to the Economic Court are appointed in the similar manner to the other high courts.
The Republic of Azerbaijan is divided into 76 administrative districts (65 rural rayons and 11 cities). The President appoints the governors of these units. Population centers in Azerbaijan that have the formal status of cities of the republic are Baku, Ganja, Sumgayit, Ali-Bayramli, Lankaran, Mingachevir, Naftalan, Khankandi, Shaki, Guba, and Shusha. The local governments of regions and cities, which are under Armenian occupation, such as Khankandi and Shusha, continue to function in exile, and schools and assistance to refugees is organized on the basis of their city or region of origin. There have been frequent changes of the number and division of the administrative districts in Azerbaijan.
Within the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhichevan is an autonomous republic and consists of six districts: Ordubad, Julfa, Shahbuz, Babek, Sharur, and Sadarak. Nakhichevan has its own Parliament, as well as Cabinet of Ministers and Supreme Court. The Chairperson of Nakhichevan's Parliament serves as the highest official of the autonomous republic. The Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan and its laws are valid in Nakhichevan, and laws and resolutions enacted there must not contract the state laws and resolutions.
Local government councils are elected in direct elections, but mayors and governors are appointed by the central government. The first municipal council elections in Azerbaijan were held in December 1999. The municipal government is authorized to impose local taxes and payments, approve a local budget, and implement local programs of social security and economic development. The relationship and division of powers and responsibilities between appointed governors and locally elected councils is still unclear and undergoing a process of further resolution, but at this point the centrally-appointed mayors wield the greater power on the local level.
Significant sources and bases of power in the Republic of Azerbaijan and centers of legitimacy remain outside the Parliament and the formal political organizations. Regional groupings and extended families remain an important source of power in Azerbaijan and important sources for support and mobilization. Nonetheless, political parties and movements are broadening their influence. Since independence, three major types of parties have emerged: those formed around a specific personality or possessing a foreign orientation; parties with a sharply defined and articulated ideological platform (within this group, there have been many splits on the basis of personalities), and sectarian parties, representing certain small groups in the society with a limited agenda, which are usually quite small. One of the most prominent parties is the New Azerbaijan Party, which is associated with President Aliyev. Other leading parties include the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, which played an important role in the period preceding the independence of the republic, and the National Independence Party.
Since the late 1980s, a vibrant and extensive press and active independent organizations have emerged in Azerbaijan. Freedom of the press was strengthened by the formal abolishment of censorship in the republic in August 1998, although intervention and economic constraints often restrain the press.
There are many gaps between the formal declarative aspects of the Azerbaijani political system and how it functions in practice. Some political restrictions are still imposed, and since independence some of the political turnovers have not occurred to legally established mechanisms. One of the notable aspects of politics in Azerbaijan is the absence of violence between conflicting Azerbaijani groups. Since independence, a number of uprisings have taken place and coup attempts made; yet they have not escalated and have been conducted with little bloodshed. In addition, despite the significant number of refugees and the difficulties in providing many social services in the republic, there have been few expressions of political violence.