Azeris Vote to Boost Presidential Powers, Exit Polls Show

  • Polls shows 89% support in referendum to amend constitution
  • Changes ‘cannot be justified,’ Venice Commission says

Azeris voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in favor of changing the constitution to hand sweeping new powers to President Ilham Aliyev, exit polls showed.

Almost 90 percent of voters in Monday’s referendum backed the amendments, which include extending presidential terms to seven years from five, according to separate polls conducted for the Azeri ATV channel and for the Protection of Labor Rights non-governmental organization. Turnout was 69.7 percent, the APA news service reported, citing the Central Election Commission.

Aliyev, 54, is seeking to buttress his rule as the Azeri economy struggles from the impact of collapsing oil prices. The constitutional changes will also give him the right to call snap elections and appoint a vice president for the first time.

Aliyev, who’s ruled Azerbaijan since 2003 after his late father Heydar led the country for a decade, also won support to abolish an age limit of 35 years for presidential candidates. That measure has prompted speculation that he may be grooming his 19-year-old son Heydar to continue the family’s dominance of the Caspian Sea nation, which has attracted more than $60 billion from BP Plc and its partners in the past two decades for energy projects.

The survey for ATV questioned 12,000 voters and found 89 percent support for the constitutional changes. There was also 89 percent backing in the exit poll of more than 32,000 people conducted for the Protection of Labor Rights NGO.

‘Test of Confidence’

The referendum “was a test of confidence” in the government and voters “demonstrated their trust” of Aliyev, Ali Ahmadov, executive secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan party said, APA reported.

“Our people boycotted the vote” and the government “has no real support,” Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party, said on Facebook. “People do not want to live under the old rules. Fundamental changes aren’t far away.”

The changes have drawn criticism from international organizations. The extension of the presidential term “cannot be justified” and the revised constitution will hand Aliyev “unprecedented” new powers that will “reduce his political accountability,” the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe said in a Sept. 20 analysis published on its website.

Economic Crisis

Aliyev moved to amend the Azeri constitution for the third time in less than 15 years as the former Soviet Union’s third-largest oil exporter reels from an economic crisis triggered by the slump in crude prices. The central bank raised its main interest rate to 15 percent from 9.5 percent, the highest since 2008, in an emergency increase this month. The manat lost half its value against the dollar last year as the regulator burned through more than two-thirds of its reserves to defend the currency before shifting to a managed floating exchange rate.

The manat is the worst performer against the dollar this quarter among ex-Soviet currencies, having weakened 5.5 percent. The Azeri economy will contract 2.4 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Some reports of election fraud emerged during the day, including videos on the internet that appeared to show officials stuffing ballots into voting boxes.

The referendum process will be “fully transparent” and monitored by more than 53,000 observers including 117 foreigners, Mazahir Panahov, the election commission’s chairman, told reporters before the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the continent’s main election monitoring body, didn’t send any observers.

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