- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN (AP) - Preliminary results show the oil-rich country of Azerbaijan voted Wednesday to end presidential term limits, a Russian news agency reported, approving a proposal that opponents say would be a significant setback for democracy.

The state-run ITAR-Tass quoted Mazair Panakhov, chairman of the Azerbaijani Central Election Commission, as saying that all measures up for a vote had passed with 54 percent of polling stations reporting.

Although opposition leaders called for a boycott of the referendum, hoping to bring voter turnout below the 25 percent needed for the results to be valid, reported turnout was 71 percent, ITAR-Tass reported, citing the election commission.

The referendum presented voters with an array of issues, the most prominent being changing the constitution to eliminate the limit of two consecutive five-year terms for a president.

Critics said eliminating the limits would be a step backward for democracy in a country that is of strategic interest to the West because of its vast oil reserves and proximity to Iran.

It would “place Azerbaijan among the backward countries,” said Isa Qambar, head of the opposition party Musavat.

Azerbaijan has been led by members of the Aliyev family since 1993 _ first by the late Geidar Aliyev, who was succeeded in 2003 by his son Ilham. Under both presidents, opposition parties have complained of coming under pressure.

OSCE monitors said Ilham Aliyev’s re-election in 2008 fell short of international democratic standards.

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