BAKU -- Azerbaijan has taken another step closer to extending President Ilham Aliyev's time in office beyond the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.
The Constitutional Court on December 24 ruled to allow a referendum in which the possibility of unlimited presidential terms would be put to the public.
The chairman of the Constitutional Court, Farhad Abdullayev, said there were no legal obstacles to parliament agreeing to sanction a referendum that would approve or reject the constitutional change. "The draft referendum act proposing amendments to the Constitution received from parliament does not contradict the people's will in the Constitution and the foundations of the state. It can be put to a referendum," he said.
Meanwhile, police broke up a demonstration by opposition activists protesting the planned referendum in front of the constitutional court. Police detained nine protesters as the group chanted “No to monarchy.” The authorities blocked all entrances to the courthouse, and groups of opposition activists heading to the rally were forced onto buses and diverted to the village of Lokbatan outside Baku.
The proposed constitutional amendment has been widely criticized by opposition parties.
But Ali Kerimli, the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that it is likely to be approved in the upcoming referendum. “Previous elections were falsified, and all levels of the election commissions are under the control of the government. I think that the upcoming plebiscite will be falsified as well,” Kerimli said.
Aliyev, who succeed his father Heydar in 2003, won a second five-year term in October in elections boycotted by the opposition and deemed neither free nor fair by international observers.
The current constitution limits Aliyev's rule to two consecutive terms. His mandate expires in 2013.
Last week, the parliament overwhelmingly backed the proposal to lift a ban on a third presidential term, potentially extending four decades of dynastic rule in the oil-rich state.
The proposed constitutional change by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party has passed through the parliamentary commissions, general parliament vote, and constitution court’s approval in less than ten days with no public debate on the issue.
Law professor Erkin Gadirli, who is also an outspoken civic activist, says the move by the ruling party was unexpected. Aliyev himself has never commented on the issue even after the constitutional change was proposed in parliament.
Gadirli says the proposed amendment contradicts the fundamental nature of the Azerbaijani republic. “Taking into account the circumstances of the society, the lack of political freedoms, the lack of a legitimate process of elections, and the lack of free media and a free market -- if you take them altogether, removing the constitutional clause which limits the number of presidential terms would actually eventually lead to some sort of monarchy-like state,” Gadirli said.
Political analyst Ilgar Mammadov said the people of Azerbaijan are not likely to speak up against the changes, despite what he called widespread public dissatisfaction with the constitutional amendments.
Mammadov says he expects the parliament, dominated by pro-government parties, to meet in the coming days to decide when to call the referendum.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report