Azeri Opposition Calls for Referendum Boycott

BAKU (Reuters)–Opposition parties in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan are urging the Azeri people to boycott a referendum next month–which they say is aimed at tightening the ruling elite’s grip on power.

At a meeting late on Tuesday–27 leading opposition parties passed a resolution calling for people to abstain from voting in the August 24 poll–saying the proposed changes to the country’s constitution were an attempt by President Haydar Aliyev "to strengthen the existing ruling regime in the country."

Earlier this month–the United States urged Azerbaijan to delay the referendum–saying more time was needed for debate.

Officials say the proposed changes are needed to fine-tune the country’s seven-year-old constitution and bring it into line with international conventions that Azerbaijan has signed.

But the opposition says Aliyev–79–wants to create the right conditions within the electoral system for him to hand over power to his chosen successor. Many in the oil-rich Caspian nation think that person will be his son.

"Taking into consideration when the referendum is due to take place and the negative reaction of the Azeri people to it–the referendum will not take place at all," Isa Gambar–head of the opposition Musavat party–told reporters.

One change being voted on in the referendum is lowering the threshold of votes required for victory in a presidential election from 75 percent to 50 percent–and another would make it harder for smaller parties to win seats in parliament.

Analysts say this will favor Aliyev–who has been in power for almost 10 years–if he fulfills his pledge to run for another term next year–or his son Ilgam if Aliyev steps aside to allow him to bid for the presidency.

But the most controversial of the proposed changes would make the prime minister – and not the speaker of parliament – caretaker president if the incumbent leaves office.

Azerbaijan’s speaker is chosen by parliament–but the prime minister is named by the president–meaning the ailing Aliyev would be able to make his son his legal stand-in by making him premier.

Aliyev has–over the past few years–been actively seeking to promote the political fortunes of his 40-year-old son–who is deputy head of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party and first vice-president of the state oil company.

Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan take place every five years–and the last one was in 2000. Presidential elections also take place every five years–with the last one in 1998.

Opposition parties accused Aliyev of widespread fraud when he was re-elected in 1998 and the OSCE and Council of Europe said the ballot was not carried out to international standards.

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