(RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's parliament has voted overwhelmingly to hold a referendum early next year to remove the limit on presidential terms, potentially extending four decades of dynastic rule in the oil-rich state.
The parliament voted 100 to 7 to hold a referendum on March 18 on proposed constitutional amendments that would remove the two-term limit on the president.
The move would allow incumbent President Ilham Aliyev to stay in power when his mandate expires in 2013.
Parliament deputy Ali Ahmedov, who is also the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, told parliament that if the constitutional change takes place, it wouldn't harm democracy in the country.
"The number of presidential terms is not a democracy issue," Ahmedov said. "If the president is elected once, twice, or three times, it's not a democracy issue, but a legislative issue."
Last week, the parliament overwhelmingly backed the proposal to lift a ban on a third presidential term. And on December 24, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the legality of the referendum.
Opposition, NGOs Protest
The proposed amendment has been widely criticized by opposition parties.
Lala-Shovket Gadjiyeva, the leader of Liberal Party, said the vote result in parliament was no surprise. She told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service: “They lead the country to feudalism, and society remains silent.”
Civil-society groups have also protested against the proposed constitutional change.
The Republican Alternative issued a statement saying that the constitutional change is against the principles of the republic.
And the Azerbaijani Americans for Democracy movement is collecting signature from Azerbaijanis worldwide to protest the change.
Meanwhile, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, the Oscar-winning screenplay writer, said he hoped Aliyev would not use the opportunity to run for another term.
But Ilgar Muradov, a popular singer from the president's hometown of Naxcivan, said he hoped for an "eternal presidency" for Aliyev.
Aliyev, who succeed his father Heydar in 2003, won a second five-year term in October in an election boycotted by the opposition and deemed neither free nor fair by international observers.
RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Khadija Ismayilova contributed to this report