BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Amid international criticism, Azerbaijanis held a referendum Monday on proposed constitutional changes that would extend the presidential term and powers in the ex-Soviet republic.
The proposals, which include raising the presidential term from five years to seven and granting the president the right to dissolve parliament, have been criticized by a European constitutional law watchdog and international human rights groups. Azerbaijani authorities have dismissed the criticism as unfounded and politically driven.
Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov said early Tuesday that with about 72 percent of the ballots counted, over 90 percent of the voters supported the extension of the presidential term.
Turnout was high at nearly 70 percent, according to election officials.
Some opponents say the changes would cement what they see as effectively a dynasty, as President Ilham Aliyev is the son of the previous leader. They see the proposed measures as a mechanism for extending his rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation that has come under frequent criticism from abroad for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.
Last week, the Venice Commission, a watchdog body of constitutional law experts based in France, released a preliminary report saying that extending the presidential mandate "cannot be justified" and that other proposed legal changes would upset the balance of power.
The commission expressed concern about a measure limiting public gatherings and said a measure giving the president the power to dissolve parliament would weaken political dissent.
The Venice Commission experts are part of the Council of Europe, a rights authority whose 47 members, including Azerbaijan, have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.
In a statement before the vote, Amnesty International said the constitutional amendments would give more authority to the already powerful president and grant the government even more power to interfere with freedom of assembly, in violation of international standards. It added that preparations for the vote were marked by arrests and intimidation of critics of the proposed constitutional amendments.
The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism and insisted that the proposed changes are aimed at streamlining the government and promoting economic reforms. "One of the main reasons for the referendum is the need to conduct fast economic reforms ... to improve the efficiency of the government and cut the red tape," Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov told reporters Monday.
Leyla Abbasova, a 53-year old school teacher who cast her ballot in the capital, Baku, said she voted for the proposed amendments and voiced hope that "they will bring positive changes."
Camilya Abdullayeva, 23, also said she voted 'yes,' adding that by removing minimum age limits for officials and legislators the proposed changes would "encourage young people to engage in politics."
Officials say the referendum results will be announced by Oct. 21.