Azerbaijan seeks to abolish term limits for president

If voters approve, 'petro-president' Ilham Aliyev could serve for life.

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BAKU, Azerbaijan – Only five months after winning a second term as president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev is seeking to abolish term limits in this oil-rich former Soviet republic.

Azerbaijanis go to the polls Wednesday in a nationwide referendum to amend their constitution. Currently, the constitution allows for two five-year terms. Should the proposed amendment pass, it would pave the way for dynastic rule in Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliyev served as president for 10 years before his son succeeded him 2003.

Azerbaijan officials have defended the amendment as pro-democratic. In an interview with Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr. Aliyev said, “You will not find any member of the European union whose leader cannot be elected as many times as the people want him to be in this position. Is it democratic? Yes. So the same should be applied to Azerbaijan.”

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Opposition leaders and human rights activists, however, worry that the move will further retard democratic reforms in the country. A report released last month by the US State Department on human rights in Azerbaijan noted deteriorating conditions in the country's civil society. In December, foreign FM broadcasts of BBC, Radio Liberty, and Voice of America were shuttered and anti-referendum activists have been arrested in the lead-up to the vote (as the Monitor reported here).

Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, who led the US delegation in high-level peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia and is now director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky, noted, “It is impossible to imagine how pursuing steps to abolish presidential terms limits in Azerbaijan now can be construed as anything but a setback to advancing needed democratic practices.”

Aliyev is not the first “petro-president” who has attempted to hold on to power through constitutional amendments. Last month, Hugo Chávez succeeded in abolishing term limits in Venezuela (see Monitor story here) and in 2007 the Kazakh parliament lifted term limits for its president. Russia has also sought to alter its constitutional restrictions on multiple presidential terms.

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