- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN (AP) - Voters in the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan have overwhelmingly supported scrapping presidential term limits, the country’s top election official said Thursday.

Opponents of President Ilham Aliyev boycotted Wednesday’s referendum calling it a new setback for democracy in the firmly controlled nation. The scrapping of term limits would allow the 47-year-old president to seek to stay indefinitely as leader of the oil-rich nation.

With ballots from more than half the polling places counted, 92 percent of voters supported abandoning the current limit of two consecutive five-year presidential terms, Central Election Commission chairman Mazahir Panakhov said.

Aliyev won his second term in October last year in an election that opponents called unfair and foreign observers said fell short of international democratic standards.

He was first elected in 2003 to succeed his now-deceased father, Geidar, who was Communist Party boss for years during the Soviet era and became president of the independent country in 1993.

Under both presidents, opposition parties have reported serious government pressure and Western governments have expressed concern over the state’s treatment of critics and the independent media.

But the United States and the European Union are courting Azerbaijan because of its Caspian Sea oil fields and its location straddling a strategic corridor for westward oil and gas exports that bypasses Russia and Iran.

Before the vote, opposition leaders said they suspected its timing reflected government concerns that plunging oil prices and economic troubles could damage its popular support and weaken its grip on the country.

Other oil-rich ex-Soviet republics have made similar changes. Lawmakers in Kazakhstan waived term limits for the long-ruling president in 2007, and Russia’s leadership pushed through a law last year extending the presidential term from four years to six.

Voters also approved 40 other less significant changes in Azerbaijan’s constitution, Panakhov said, according to results so far. The turnout was about 71 percent.

The changes include establishing benefits for former presidents and prohibiting presidential and parliamentary elections during wartime.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan, has been controlled by Armenians since a war that ended with a shaky cease-fire in 1994. Without a settlement of its status, a new armed conflict remains possible.

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