Azerbaijan is a republic with a presidential form of government. Heydar Aliyev assumed presidential powers after the overthrow of his popularly elected predecessor and was elected president in 1993. Aliyev and his supporters from his home region of Nakichevan and elsewhere dominate the government and the legislature. Presidential elections are due to take place in October 2003.
The Azerbaijani constitution was approved by 91.9% of voters in a referendum held in November 1995. It establishes a strong presidency, sets up a new 125-member legislature (the Milli Mejlis), declares Azerbaijani the state language, proclaims freedom of religion and a secular state, stipulates ownership over part of the Caspian Sea, and gives Nakhchiveni Autonomous Republic (NAR) quasi-federal rights. The president appoints and removes cabinet ministers (the Milli Mejlis consents to his choice of prime minister), submits budgetary and other legislation that cannot be amended but only approved or rejected within 56 days, and appoints local officials. It is extremely difficult for the Milli Mejlis to impeach the president. According to the US State Department, corruption is endemic in the government. It also reports that the judicial branch effectively functions as part of the executive branch and is corrupt and inefficient. In practice, the Milli Mejlis too exercises little legislative initiative, with most of its legislation and agenda dictated by the executive branch. The transition to democracy has been impeded by government efforts to hinder the opposition. In NK, political turmoil and war damage have slowed development, and ethnic Azerbaijans are prevented from returning to the region and surrounding areas by the lack of a peace settlement.
In June 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that changes to the constitution proposed by President Aliyev did not conflict with the principles of Azerbaijan's basic law. One major change in the constitution concerns what happens if the president retires or becomes incapacitated. Prior to the 24 August 2002 referendum, under the constitution's Article 105, the speaker of parliament assumed the president's duties. Under the new rule, the prime minister, who is appointed by the president and is responsible to him, not the legislature, assumes presidential powers. An amendment to Article 101 changed the threshold for a candidate to be elected president in the first round of voting, from two-thirds to a simple majority. Members of the Milli Mejlis were previously elected on the basis of majority and proportional election systems under Article 83 of the constitution. Under the new provisions, proportional party lists were eliminated and deputies are elected only through winning majorities in districts. Changes to Article 3 forbid holding a referendum on issues that fall under the scope of executive institutions, such as taxes, the state budget, amnesties, elections and appointments to executive positions.
In the November 1995 election, 25 of the seats were allocated through a proportional party list vote and 100 through single-member district balloting. Eight parties were allowed to take part in the party list voting in the legislative elections, but only the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) was clearly an anti-Aliyev party. These were the New Azerbaijan (NAP), APF, Azerbaijan Democratic Independence (ADIP), National Independence (NIP), Azerbaijan Democratic Proprietors (ADPP), Motherland, Azerbaijan National Statehood (NSPA), and Alliance for Azerbaijan parties. Aliyev's NAP won most seats in the legislative races. The elections were marred by the harassment and exclusion of most opposition parties and candidates from participation and by rampant irregularities such as the open stuffing of ballot boxes, according to international observers. Some observers stressed that the elections marked some progress in holding a multi-party vote. Aliyev's NAP candidates ran unopposed in many electoral districts because of the exclusion of opposition candidates. Campaign advertising by most parties was severely restricted on state-owned television, while Aliyev received extensive positive coverage. Legislative elections held in November 2000 saw the NAP and its allies win 108 out of 125 seats in the Milli Mejlis in elections that were criticized by international observers. The APF took the next highest number of seats with 6.