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Azerbaijan: Aliev Allies' 'Power Grab'

Opposition fury over plan to scrap Azerbaijan president’s term limits.
By Idrak Abbasov

Opposition leaders in Azerbaijan are furious about government plans to scrap the constitutional bar on presidents serving more than two terms, saying it is a naked power grab by allies of President Ilham Aliev.

Analysts say the plans, set to be voted on in a referendum on March 18, are almost certain to be approved, giving Aliev the chance to remain president beyond 2013 when, according to the current constitution, he would have had to stand down.

“A ban on re-electing an individual as president more than twice violates the rights of the voters and the individual himself. Therefore this ban in the constitution has to be cancelled,” said Fazaila Agamaly, a member of parliament from the Ana Veten party, when first raising the question in 2006.

Aliev took over the presidency from his father Heidar, who had dominated politics in the country for two decades, in 2003. Initial speculation had been that he would step down in 2013 and arrange for his wife Mekhriban to be elected, but after his re-election in October by a landslide, the government suddenly changed tactics.

Having previously ignored suggestions that it should change the constitution, the government suddenly seized on the plan and rushed it through parliament.

Parliament, which is dominated by the pro-presidential New Azerbaijan party, backed the bill on December 26 by 100 votes to seven after a rapid process of discussion, which included approval by the constitutional court.

Opposition leaders, who boycotted the October election in which Aliev won 89 per cent, were outraged.

“This is all an attempt to distract attention from more important questions. The real and only aim of the changes is for the government of New Azerbaijan to do all it can to ensure the eternal presidency of Ilham Aliev,” said Ali Kermili, chairman of the opposition National Front Party.

The proposed constitutional changes go further than just scrapping the term limit for presidents. They would also cancel elections during wars, and extend the terms of the president and parliament accordingly; stop people being filmed or recorded against their will; rename a few state bodies, and make a few other minor changes.

But analysts were in no doubt that the focus was the article on term limits.

“I think that, before bringing these changes to a referendum, it would have been important to organise broad discussions in society, which we have not seen in this case. Hurrying in such a matter is not very good for a state that declares that it observes European democratic values,” said Rasim Musabekov, an independent political analyst.

“It is absolutely clear that all the other changes are just a background for the main change to the constitution, which is removing the limits on election to the post of head of state. This is the whole point of the referendum.”

The opposition party Musavat tried to hold a protest against the proposal outside the Constitutional Court on December 24, but were forcibly repelled by riot police.

A few days later, several progressive groups announced they were creating an umbrella organisation called “Real Alternative” to hold a demonstration on January 23 in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, and to protest what they call a drift towards monarchy in the country.

“Like in medieval Europe, private monopolies have become the norm in economic life. As a result, competition has practically disappeared from the political system… The only effective alternative to this situation, which is harmful for the country, is a real republic,” the group said in a statement.

But Musabekov doubted the groups would gain much support for their campaign. Most Azerbaijanis take no part in politics, and prefer to steer clear of protests, which have been violently suppressed in the past.

“The population was passive at the presidential elections, but this did not interfere with the president being elected,” the analyst said.

And his words were largely confirmed by a quick straw poll on the streets of Baku, where people spoken to by IWPR did not understand the point of the referendum, or did not care, or were cynical about the intentions of the government.

“I want to live like a man in a decent country and raise my children well. But the corruption, the networking, the illegality stop me doing this. I hope that, in five years’ time, we as a united people can choose our president and government. But, it would seem that the current authorities would like to ensure eternal rule for themselves,” said Dzhakhangir Rustamov, a 35-year-old resident.

Idrak Abbasoc is a journalist with the Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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