The president of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities says amendments to Azerbaijan's constitution, which were passed in a public referendum on March 18, violate commitments on democracy made by Baku in 2002.In a telephone interview
, Ian Micallef told RFE/RL that one of the main concerns is a controversial amendment that scraps term limits for the president -- essentially allowing President Ilham Aliyev to continue running for reelection for the rest of his life.
Micallef said implementation of such an amendment would cause Baku's delegation to be suspended from the congress and could eventually cost the Azerbaijan its membership in the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body.
"We are speaking here on democracy and the rule of law. We believe that if there is no limit [on presidential terms], the fact is that a president can turn into a dictator," Micallef said.
We are speaking here on democracy and the rule of law. We believe that if there is no limit [on presidential terms], the fact is that a president can turn into a dictator.
"We believe that a country, a state, should be working on very sound principles of democracy which were obviously part of the commitments which Azerbaijan gave to the Council of Europe upon its accession to the Council of Europe," he added. "Then we are there obviously to defend that right -- to defend such values."
Micallef said moves by the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities could come as soon as its next meeting, which is in early April. He says a decision to suspend Baku's delegates from the congress also would be considered as a recommendation for Azerbaijan to be suspected from the Council of Europe.
In Baku, the head of Azerbaijan's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) responded to Micallef's remarks by saying that Micallef was misinformed about the situation in Azerbaijan. 'Freedom Of Choice'
Samed Seyidov, who also is a member of Aliyev's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, said that visiting members of the PACE had assured him that the referendum was conducted in a democratic way.
"The result of the referendum gives us an opportunity to take steps in future, steps which will be acceptable not only for Azerbaijan...but for future relations with our European partners and, first of all, the Council of Europe," Seyidov said. "In some cases, as I know, the absence of information about the referendum and absence of objective analysis -- and some information that is coming from not-so-reliable and not-so understandable sources in Azerbaijan -- have created some misunderstandings. Even inside the Council of Europe and even between the international organizations."
Preliminary official results from the referendum show voters overwhelmingly supporting the constitutional amendments.
The Central Election Committee in Baku has said turnout on March 18 was more than 70 percent of the country's 4.8 million eligible voters. It also says more than 90 percent of those who cast a ballot voted in favor of the constitutional amendments.
Aliyev supporters say they should have the right to elect him as president indefinitely.
Aliyev's supporters have argued that the removal of an existing two-term limit for the presidency would strengthen the freedom of voters to choose their leader.
"Democratic conditions have not been violated. We have the right to choose who we like as our president," electoral official Nariman Mavsumov said. "But why should we deprive the president of the right to more than two terms?"
But the European Commission for Democracy Through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, says arguments like Mavsumov's only sound attractive in theory.
The Venice Commission says explicit term limits are needed in any democracy to prevent a president from becoming an authoritarian leader. It says that is because an incumbent president can easily use various referendums and elections to strengthen his or her position and secure reelection.
The commission says that constitutional limitations on successive terms are meant "to limit the risk of negative consequences for democracy" that arise when the same person has the possibility of occupying the presidency for an excessive period of time.Opposition Cries Foul
Opposition groups in Azerbaijan -- which had called for the vote to be boycotted -- are alleging that the referendum results are tainted by massive fraud
Liberal Party leader Lala Shovket said monitoring by opposition groups shows that turnout was 14 to 15 percent -- below the 25 percent threshold needed to make the vote valid and far from the official 70 percent turnout released by election officials. Shovket suggested the low turnout was an indication the constitutional amendments did not enjoy the popular support the regime says they did.
Other opposition leaders allege irregularities such as ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting as well as harassment of opposition campaigners and the use of government control over the media to dominate debate in the weeks before the vote.
Isa Qambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party and Republican Movement, claimed that the turnout and referendum results were falsified in order to keep members of Aliyev's family in power.
"First of all, people said no to Aliyev's regime. This is the undisputable and important reality of the referendum," Qambar told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.
"The second point is that the referendum was designed to prolong the Aliyev family's hold on power -- but will eventually shorten it. We are representatives of a civic movement that will continue to struggle in this direction," he added. "I am sure that this fight will end with the victory of Azerbaijani people."
The opposition civil movement For Karabakh and Republic said on March 19 that it plans to take legal action to cancel the results.Separation Of Powers
The Venice Commission had warned before the March 18 vote about why scrapping presidential term limits is a cause for concern. It said a key principle of the rule of law is the separation of powers between different branches of the government. It says that in countries with a presidential system, power tends to be concentrated on the executive while the powers of the legislature or the judiciary are relatively weaker.
It says that a regular change of regime through the process of elections is "the very method to prevent too strong a concentration of powers in the hands of the president." The Venice Commission also has noted that comparative studies show the constitutions of most countries with an elected president impose limits of either one or two terms.
Until the March 18 referendum, Belarus was the only European presidential republic that did not limit the number of consecutive terms for a president. Presidential term limits in Belarus were removed after a referendum in 2004 -- a move that also was criticized by the Venice Commission for distorting the balance of power in Belarus.
In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the Venice Commission has pointed out that in a system where the powers of the president are almost unrestricted, a constitutional limitation on the number of times a president can be reelected "may be the only effective check on presidential powers."Khadija Ismayilova of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report from Baku