Public votes to scrap presidential term limit

According to a referendum held in Azerbaijan on Wednesday, 92% of citizens voted to lift the two-term limit on presidential terms. Opposition groups say this would allow President Ilham Alieyv (pictured) to be president for life.


AFP - Azerbaijan voted Wednesday to scrap a two-term presidential limit, paving the way for President Ilham Aliyev to indefinitely extend his family's dynastic hold on power in the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic.

With more than half the votes counted by early Thursday, 92 percent of Azerbaijanis had voted in favour of lifting the restriction, Central Elections Commission chairman Mazahir Panahov told journalists.

Dozens of other constitutional amendments proposed in the referendum, including new restrictions on the media, were also set to be approved, he said.

"The percentages in favour are so high that we can already say that all the changes will be approved," he said.

Opposition groups had called for a boycott, arguing that the vote would allow Aliyev, whose family has dominated politics here for nearly four decades, to be president for life.

Despite that, more than 71 percent of voters in the mainly Muslim country of 8.7 million turned out, the election commission said.

Aliyev, 47, won a second five-year term by a landslide last October, having taken over from his father Heydar, a top-ranking former Soviet official and KGB member, in 2003.

Heydar Aliyev was a Soviet-era leader of this state on the western coast of the Caspian Sea and president for 10 years after the country won independence in 1991. The younger Aliyev was first elected to replace his father shortly before the 80-year-old's death.

Supporters of the changes insisted they are aimed at making Azerbaijan more democratic by allowing voters to choose whoever they wish to be president.

But government critics, who have long accused Aliyev and his late father of having ruthlessly held on to power, said the vote was aimed at consolidating the grip of the first family.

Many of Azerbaijan's main opposition groups called for voters to stay home Wednesday. They accused the authorities of preparing to fix the vote, harassing opposition campaigners and using government control of the media to dominate the debate.

Ali Keremli, leader of the anti-government National Front party, said opposition monitors had seen numerous voting violations on Wednesday.

"Our observers have seen a high number of violations," he said, including groups of voters being brought to several polling stations to cast their votes more than once.

At polling stations in the capital Baku many voters said they supported the move and credited Aliyev with steering the country through a period of record economic growth.

"I voted so that Ilham Aliyev may continue to be our president because he has brought us stability," said Khatima Jabrailova, a 72-year-old pensioner.

But some said the two-term limit should stand.

"I voted against this. There is no need to change our constitution," said Vugar Shabalov, a 21-year-old student.

"In a time when the whole world is in economic crisis, we should not be spending money on this referendum."

Aliyev voted with his wife and daughter at a central Baku polling station, but did not speak to reporters.

Despite opposition objections, the referendum has drawn little criticism from the United States or European countries.

Azerbaijan's opposition accuses Western governments of shying away from criticising Aliyev to secure access to Azerbaijan's vast Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves.

The amendments will also postpone presidential and parliamentary elections in the event of war.

Despite a ceasefire, Azerbaijan remains locked in a simmering conflict with neighbouring Armenia over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh, which Aliyev has vowed to retake.

Dozens of other constitutional changes were proposed in the referendum, including restrictions on photographing, videotaping or recording people without their permission, a prohibition on showing "disrespect" to "state symbols" and increased state oversight of local governments.

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