|Ilham Aliyev’s father led Azerbaijan for 30 years during and after Soviet rule [Reuters]|
Azeri voters have backed scrapping presidential term limits allowing the current leader to indefinitely extend his hold on power. Al Jazeera’s Matthew Collin reports.
The pace of change in Baku has been remarkable.
Massive construction projects have transformed the landscape of Azerbaijan’s oil-rich capital – the result of an economic boom fuelled by huge revenues from energy sales.
Hundreds of apartment blocks and modern office complexes soar upwards, dramatically altering the skyline of this former Soviet city on the Caspian Sea shore.
Now the country’s powerful president, Ilham Aliyev, is also set to transform the political landscape of Azerbaijan, after people voted overwhelmingly in a referendum on Wednesday to abolish a two-term presidential limit.
It means that 47-year-old Aliyev can now stand for office as many times as he wishes – possibly enabling him to become president for life.
For his supporters, that would be a cause for celebration.
“Our government knows which law needs to be changed and which one doesn’t”
They say that Aliyev has brought stability, development and increasing prosperity to Azerbaijan, while other former Soviet republics are still mired in political turmoil and economic uncertainty.
“He’s always done his best to improve and develop our country,” said a woman who had taken her young daughter to watch her casting her vote in central Baku.
“I trust Ilham Aliyev. Who could be president apart from him?”
Azerbaijan lies in a strategically important location between Russia and Iran, and has become increasingly significant as an energy supplier amid the global struggle for control of natural resources.
This mainly Muslim country is seen as a vital source of oil and gas as western Europe seeks to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies.
Stability over civil rights?
Critics claim that Western governments have largely overlooked civil rights abuses and widespread corruption to ensure good relations with the administration.
Opposition leaders also allege that President Aliyev has consolidated his power by falsifying elections, restricting media freedoms, jailing opponents and limiting the right to protest.
|Critics accuse the West of prioritising energy supplies over alleged civil rights abuses [AFP]|
“The referendum is throwing Azerbaijan further backwards and strengthening an authoritarian regime,” said Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front party.
The opposition accuses the West of remaining silent as the ruling elite enriches itself and the president effectively turns himself into a king.
“Ilham Aliyev wants to be president forever, then he wants to pass his title on to his children, and for it to continue like that,” claimed Kerimli.
“There is talk about creating an absolute monarchy in Azerbaijan – I’m not talking about a constitutional monarchy, but a medieval monarchy.”
Aliyev was re-elected last year with a crushing 89 per cent of the vote in a presidential poll which was criticised by European observers for not meeting international standards – the latest in a series of disputed elections in Azerbaijan.
But Aliyev’s governing New Azerbaijan party, which proposed this week’s referendum, argues that abolishing the presidential term limit will actually increase democratic choice by allowing people to vote for the person they want to lead them again and again.
“We always ask the opposition, don’t you want to extend citizens’ rights and liberties?” said Mubariz Gurbanly, the party’s deputy executive secretary.
“They cannot accept the fact that Ilham Aliyev is the leader of the nation; they see his strength and they are afraid that they will lose their chance to rule.”
“Let’s vote for a strong state” was the governing party’s referendum slogan, and Gurbanly said that political continuity would maintain stability, allowing wealth to grow.
The referendum also approved dozens of other constitutional changes, including further restrictions on the media and a ban on showing “disrespect” to “state symbols”.
Azerbaijan’s increasingly weak and marginalised opposition boycotted the vote and at one polling station in Baku, the only people who were willing to speak openly were Aliyev loyalists.
“I am sure that our country is in trustworthy hands, and that these changes will lead to a happy future for us,” said one young man after casting his vote.
“I wish our president good health.”
Another voter said the Aliyev administration should decide what is best for Azerbaijan’s people.
“Our government knows which law needs to be changed and which one doesn’t,” he insisted.
Before Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003, his father, former Communist leader Heydar Aliyev, ran the country for around 30 years, before and then after independence from the Soviet Union.
“It’s a fact that oil-based countries are paternalistic… people’s dependence on the government is high”
Rasim Musabayov, independent analyst
His face still gazes down from huge roadside billboards all over the country, part of an officially encouraged personality cult which has been developed around the man whom the propaganda posters describe as the “creator of modern Azerbaijan”.
Some Azeris simply refer to him as “Baba”, or “Grandfather”, and the referendum result is set to increase the dominance of the dynasty that he established.
But one political observer in Baku suggests that many people here have a genuine desire for a strongman leader.
Rasim Musabayov, an independent analyst, says: “It’s a fact that oil-based countries are paternalistic.
“That means people’s dependence on the government is high, and this is what we’re seeing in Azerbaijan.”
Outside affluent Baku, poverty remains widespread despite the country’s rapid economic growth.
But in the centre of the capital, where shoppers browse for consumer luxuries made affordable by Azerbaijan’s energy wealth, the words of one middle-aged Azeri man seemed to support the view that there is now simply no alternative to the current leadership.
“I don’t see any candidate for the post of president today except for Ilham Aliyev,” he declared.