Some 91.2% of Azerbaijani voters supported the extension of the presidential term from five to seven years, the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on September 28 after almost 100% of the referendum ballots have been counted.
Some 69.7% of Azerbaijan's 5.2mn registered voters cast ballots in a controversial referendum on constitutional amendments that are expected to strengthen the grip on power of President Ilham Aliyev on September 26. The figure exceeds the 25% minimum turnout necessary to validate the results, which will be announced by October 21, CEC has said.
Critics have accused the proponent of the referendum, President Aliyev, of seeking to enshrine his already great executive powers in the constitution and to pave the way for his family to succeed him should he fall sick or step down. In July, Aliyev introduced a decree calling for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would introduce two new offices in the state administration - that of the vice president and of the first vice president, positions that he would appoint and dismiss; extend the presidential term from five to seven years; and scrap the requirement that presidential and parliamentary candidates be over 35 and 25 years old, respectively. His proposal came shortly after the attempted coup d'etat in Turkey, which is one of Azerbaijan’s main commercial and diplomatic partners.
The referendum contained 29 questions. According to CEC chairman Mazahir Panahov, 84.2% had voted to extend the presidential term, which would allow Aliyev to hold his current position until 2020, when he would have to run again. A two-term presidential limit was scrapped in 2009, so he can run as many times as he wishes.
With most of the votes counted, the approval rate for other measures, such as creating an office of the first vice president and that of a vice president, were also above 80%, CEC added. CEC has until October 21 to publish the final results. However, it is apparent that the incumbent has successfully achieved a popularly-backed and constitutional expansion of his powers.
Human rights watchdog Freedom House criticised Baku for the referendum in a statement published on September 28. “Azerbaijan’s election commission ignored its own requirements by accepting the results of the September 26 referendum despite well-documented ballot stuffing, the detention of people protesting the procedures, and other serious irregularities,” Robert Herman, Freedom House's vice president for international programs, said.
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe's body for legal affairs, the Venice Commission, also criticised the constitutional amendments for eroding democratic checks and balances, and severely restricting the parliament's authority in a report published last week.
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