BAKU, Azerbaijan –Voters here overwhelmingly approved a constitutional referendum to abolish presidential term limits in this oil-rich former Soviet republic, according to preliminary results from Wednesday's election.
Opposition leaders, who had called for a boycott of the election, immediately decried what they believe to be widespread voting fraud, including ballot stuffing, intimidation, and outright falsification of turnout figures. Isa Gambar, the leader of the opposition Musavat Party, claimed official turnout was no higher than 15 percent.
Turnout is critical to the success of the referendum as local law requires 25 percent participation. By the time the polls closed last night, election officials placed voter turnout at 64 percent.
The Central Election Commission, which oversaw votings, says that more than half the votes have since been counted, with 92 percent in favor of the changes.
Radio Liberty posted this video which appears to show an Azerbaijani woman voting three times. The service also reported witnessing voters being bused to multiple polling stations.
In addition to abolishing term limits, the referendum contained several other controversial amendments. Media rights activists and lawyers are particularly concerned about language making it illegal to record or photograph anyone without prior permission.
International observers have yet to release their findings. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, however, issued a warning prior to the vote. Noting the existing concentration of power within the executive branch, it stated the absence of term limits may prove “a serious setback on Azerbaijan’s road to a consolidated democracy.”
Under the previous Constitution, the president was allowed to serve only two terms. In October, President Ilham Aliyev was reelected for a second five-year term. His father, Heydar Aliyev, served as the country's communist leader during Soviet rule. Heydar Aliyev then went on to serve as independent Azerbaijan's president from 1993 until his death in 2003.
The changes would allow Ilham Aliyev to run again for office in 2013 – as well as 2018 and beyond, setting the stage for an Aliyev dynasty that stretches generations.
Last year, the government cracked down on broadcast licenses issued to foreign media operating in the country (as the Monitor reported here), including the BBC and Voice of America. Experts believe the country's crumbling press freedom and growing presidential powers might reflect the country's shift away from Washington in favor of Russia.