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Azerbaijani Voters Said To Approve Greater Powers For Aliyev

  • RFE/RL

Nearly 85 percent of Azerbaijan's voters supported the extension of the presidential term from five to seven years, with nearly 100 percent of the ballots counted, Baku's Central Election Commission has announced.

Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov said on September 27 that 84.2 percent of voters approved the term extension, with 9 percent opposing it in the country's controversial September 26 referendum.

The change will allow President Ilham Aliyev, who has been in office since taking over from his ailing father in 2003, to avoid seeking reelection until 2020, instead of 2018.

Official results from the election are not expected until next month, but the election commission in Baku announced some early results and said that turnout was nearly 70 percent.

Earlier the Venice Commission, a European watchdog of constitutional-law experts, said the measures would weaken political dissent.

"Many proposed amendments would severely upset the balance of power by giving unprecedented powers to the president," it said.

Speaking to journalists in Baku on September 27, Aleksandar Nikoloski, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe monitoring mission, called on the authorities to treat the Venice Commission's conclusions with respect.

Russian news agencies also cited exit polls indicating that all the constitutional changes were approved overwhelmingly by voters despite widespread international criticism that the referendum was designed to cement the rule of Aliyev and his family over the oil-rich country while further stifling dissent.

The 54-year-old president would only have to run every seven years -- something he would be able to do repeatedly, since a presidential term limit was scrapped in 2009.

Other changes would eliminate the minimum age restriction for running for president, as well as lower the minimum age for running for parliament, from 25 years to 18.

Those changes would enable Aliyev to groom a member of his family to become his successor from an earlier age.

TASS and Interfax reported that voters approved another change giving Aliyev the right for the first time to dismiss parliament, the Milli Mejlis.

They reported that voters also supported creating two vice-presidential posts, both of whose occupants would be appointed and dismissed by the president.

The first vice president would become second in line to the president, and would be appointed acting president if the president resigns, according to the changes.

There has been speculation that the post of first vice president is being created for President Aliyev's wife, Mehriban, who is a deputy chairwoman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, or for their 19-year-old son Heidar.

In 2002 and 2009, Azerbaijan organized constitutional referendums marred by fraud that directly benefited the Aliyev family.

'Weakening Dissent'

Opposition groups staged mass protests ahead of the latest referendum, denouncing it as an effort by Aliyev to extend his family's long grip on power.

The Venice Commission, a European watchdog of constitutional law experts, last week said the measures would weaken political dissent.

"Many proposed amendments would severely upset the balance of power by giving unprecedented powers to the president," it said.

Amnesty International warned that the referendum would grant the government even more power to interfere with freedom of assembly, in violation of international standards. It noted that preparations for the vote were marked by arrests and intimidation of critics.

The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism and insisted that the proposed changes are aimed at streamlining the government and promoting economic reforms.

"One of the main reasons for the referendum is the need to conduct fast economic improve the efficiency of the government and cut the red tape," Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov told reporters on September 26.

With reporting by AP, dpa, Reuters, TASS, and Interfax