- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN (AP) - Election officials in Azerbaijan said Thursday that citizens overwhelmingly voted to scrap presidential term limits in the oil-rich country courted by Russia and the West.

Opposition leaders claimed the constitutional referendum was rigged and vowed to dispute the outcome in court. A small European observer mission said, however, that the vote was transparent and it had seen no violations.

The official result opens the door for indefinite rule by President Ilham Aliyev in a Caspian Sea nation that critics say is closer to a monarchy than a democracy. The Central Election Commission reported nearly 92 percent of voters approved abandoning the limit of two consecutive presidential terms, with 71 percent turnout in the country of 8 million people.

Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil fields and its location straddling a strategic corridor for westward oil and gas exports from Central Asia _ bypassing Russia and Iran _ make it a focus in the struggle between Moscow and the West for regional influence.

Aliyev is the son of the late Geidar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan first as the Communist Party boss during the Soviet times, then as president in 1993-2003. He has courted Western oil money and moved to strengthen ties with the U.S., including by sending troops to Iraq, while maintaining mostly friendly ties with Russia.

The commission said voters on Wednesday also approved changes include establishing financial and other 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.

Aliyev opponents claimed the vote was riddled with violations encouraged or organized by the state. They said their observers witnessed abuses including ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting. Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front party, said the opposition believes actual turnout was no more than 15 percent.

“The referendum was not free or fair and we do not consider it valid,” Kerimli told a news conference. He said the official results “do not reflect the will of the people.”

“The vote showed that the people have said ‘no’ to the ruling regime,” said Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat party.

The leader of a four-member observation mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Belgian Paul Wille, said the delegation had not witnessed violations. Reading a statement, he said the referendum was “transparent, well organized and held in a peaceful atmosphere” but that there should have been more discussion of the issues in the media ahead of the vote.

Opposition leaders had said before the vote that they suspected its timing reflected government concerns that plunging oil prices and economic troubles could damage its popular support and weaken its grip.

Aliyev, 47, won his second term in October in an election that opponents called unfair and foreign observers said fell short of international democratic standards.

Opposition parties have reported serious government pressure in recent years and Western governments have expressed concern over the state’s treatment of critics and the independent media.

With ballots from more than half the polling places counted, only 8 percent of voters supported the current limit of two consecutive five-year presidential terms, Central Election Commission chairman Mazahir Panakhov said.

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 approved a total of 41 changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution, Panakhov said. The official turnout was far above the 25 percent needed to make the referendum count, and each proposed change required a simple majority of votes cast.

(This version CORRECTS the total number of changes approved to 41.)

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