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Azerbaijan votes to lift Aliyev term limit

BAKU (Reuters) - Oil-producing Azerbaijan voted to lift the country’s two-term presidential limit Wednesday, handing President Ilham Aliyev the chance to rule for life provided he keeps winning re-election.

Officials count ballots after polls closed in a referendum in Baku March 18, 2009. Azerbaijan reported strong turnout in a referendum on Wednesday almost certain to hand President Ilham Aliyev the chance to rule the ooil-producing former Soviet republic for life. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

The constitutional amendment opens the door to the Aliyev family extending its decades-long dominance of the former Soviet state -- a supplier of oil and gas to the West -- after Aliyev’s second term ends in 2013.

The state election commission said 92.2 percent of voters in the referendum backed scrapping the limit based on results from 54 percent of polling stations. Turnout was put at 71 percent, despite an opposition call on voters to stay at home.

“These amendments are for the good of the people,” teacher Sabir Farajev, 70, said after voting beneath a large photograph of Aliyev and his father. “If the president deserves to be head of state, he can be president for life,” he said.

Aliyev, 47, has been president since 2003, when he succeeded his father Heydar, who led Azerbaijan first as Communist leader within the Soviet Union then as president.

His rule has coincided with an economic boom fueled by oil pumped to Europe from the Caspian Sea in a region where the West and Russia are vying for influence over huge energy reserves.

In keeping with its location at a strategic crossroads at the threshold of Central Asia, Aliyev has tried to strike a balance between Moscow and the West, notably on energy policy.

The mainly Muslim country is key to Europe’s hopes of reducing its energy dependence on Russia, a fact the opposition says has diluted Western criticism of Azeri democracy.

Rapid economic growth has brought improved infrastructure and living standards for some. Veteran opposition leaders are seen as weak, and fatally linked with the war and chaos that marred Azerbaijan’s first years of independence -- a brief spell when the Aliyevs were not at the helm.

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But rights groups say Aliyev’s grip on power owes more to strict curbs on democracy and to the personality cult built around his father, whose portrait and name adorn sidewalks and buildings across Azerbaijan.

Opposition leaders in the country of 8.7 million people complained of ballot stuffing and pressure on local observers, and disputed the turnout figure.

Aliyev claimed 89 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, which was also boycotted by the opposition and deemed less than democratic by European monitors.

Some analysts say the authorities want to shore up Aliyev’s rule against the uncertain impact of the global economic crisis, with depressed oil prices likely to rein in spending plans and test the currency. Rampant corruption limits how much oil revenue makes it beyond Baku to poorer towns and villages.

The ruling party dismissed opposition warnings of deepening authoritarianism.

“Had the tendency toward authoritarianism existed in Azerbaijan it would have shown itself in the last 10 years,” said Ali Huseynov of the parliament’s legal policy body.

The authorities say they are committed to international standards of democracy but that the country needs to be protected from forces they say are trying to sow instability.

A refugee from the early 1990s war with ethnic Armenian separatists in the rebel Nagorno-Karabakh region, now living in a squalid Baku basement, said: “”We can write, we can read, we can watch. But we have no voice.” He asked not to be named.

The amendments also provide for the extension of parliamentary and presidential mandates in case of military operations under a state of war. Critics warn the clause lacks precision, having in mind the festering conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where a peace accord has never been signed.

Additional reporting by Afet Mehtiyeva, editing by Jon Boyle