03/18/2009, 00.00
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Azeris voting to make Aliyev president for life

Voters have to decide whether to lift a two-term time limit in presidential elections. Opposition is against the change and is boycotting the vote. But Aliyev has widespread appeal in the country, thanks partly to the country’s rapid economic growth.
Baku (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Azeris are voting today in a constitutional referendum to decide whether to lift the current two-term limit for the country's president. They will also decide on 41 amendments to 29 articles of Azerbaijan's constitution, but the most important will be President Ilham Aliyev’s eligibility for unlimited runs starting in 2013.

The opposition has branded the move a farce designed to install the current head of state as president for life and called on voters to boycott the referendum.

Mr Aliyev won re-election last October with nearly 89% of ballots cast, in a vote the opposition boycotted as unfair.

Few doubts the amendments will pass since the referendum law requires a 25 per cent turnout of the 4.9 million eligible voters.

The referendum itself was proposed by the Yeni Azerbaijan Party, which is the president’s main supporter.

In 2003 Ilham Aliyev replaced his father, Heydar Aliyev, who was president from 1993 to 2003 and the country’s leader from 1969 till 1982 when it was part of the Soviet Union.

Under Ilham Aliyev’s tenure the country has experienced rapid economic growth (20 per cent annually from 2003 and 2007), thanks to Caspian Sea oil and gas. Many Azeris are grateful to him for this.

By contrast, the opposition and human rights activities have complained that wealth has largely gone to the ruling elites and that democracy and press media are being gradually eroded.

As evidence of their claim there is a proposed constitutional amendment, which would make it illegal for journalists to “follow, film, photograph, or record” a subject without prior consent, a change that is particularly decried by journalists and human rights groups.

The lack of information and public debate during the 28-day campaign are also among the reasons cited by analysts to criticise the referendum, which have been compounded by existing major limits on freedom of speech, press and assembly.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters, said that the elimination of term limits in presidential elections may prove “a serious setback on Azerbaijan's road to a consolidated democracy."

But for Elnur Aslanov, head of the presidential administration's Policy Analysis and Information Department, the “opposition does not have any alternative opinions or concrete position regarding the referendum. Therefore, they decided to boycott the referendum.”

Strategically Azerbaijan is also becoming more important. With Kyrgyzstan’s decision to shut down the US air force base in its territory and the rising number of road attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan, Azerbaijan is an attractive alternative to supply Afghanistan through the Caspian Sea.

Should the route prove successful, it could allow the shipment of upward of 30,000 containers each month to Afghanistan.

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