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Page last updated at 17:57 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Azeris voice loyalty to president

Man walks past referendum posters in Baku
Opposition parties say the proposed amendments are a threat to democracy

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Baku

Pinned up in many of the shop windows in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, are giant blue, red and green posters with the word "referendum" struck across the middle.

They are advertisements for the hottest event in the Central Asian nation's political calendar this year - a vote on a series of constitutional amendments, one of which would abolish the law limiting a president to two terms in office.

When the referendum was called in December, the chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, Ali Ahmadov, described the term limit as a "violation of voters' rights".

The party said it should be dropped and proposed more than 20 constitutional amendments.

Now the government is hoping for a high turnout in the vote on Wednesday so it can win approval for those changes.

Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in October 2008 with 89% of the vote
Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in October 2008 with 89% of the vote

But not everyone supports the idea of the referendum itself, let alone the changes.

The country's opposition parties have tried to mobilise support against a move they say is a threat to democracy.

Campaigners point out that the government wants to tighten its grip on power by scrapping the term limit before the effects of falling oil prices filter through, and while its revenues are high.

"Oil production is at its peak", says Vugar Bayromov, chairman of Baku-based Centre for Economic and Social Development.

"The annual oil income was $20bn in 2008 in our country, where the population is eight million."

"The ruling party doesn't want to share power at the moment because we expect huge revenue in the next five or six years. It wants to control the flow of that cash," he adds.

'Monarchy'

President Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003, taking over from his father, Heydar, who had led the country for a decade.

Elnur Aslanov stands next to a portrait of Haydar Aliyev
Some Western leaders have asked to change the rules so they can stay in office for longer than two terms
Elnur Aslanov, Azerbaijan presidential administration

President Aliyev the younger was then re-elected last October, in a vote which international observers said fell short of fully democratic standards.

I had not been in Baku long before I realised just how popular the Aliyev family is.

Heydar is fondly commemorated in a plethora of giant banners, statues and busts.

Some, however, see it as evidence of a dynastic rule.

Of the five pro-opposition campaigners to whom I spoke, some referred to the Aliyev family as a "monarchy", while the rest called it a "dictatorship".

The government refuses to accept the criticism.

"There is no democratic failure here," says Elnur Aslanov, head of political analysis and information at Azerbaijan's presidential administration.

"Many international organisations assessed the last presidential elections as democratic."

"And as for the referendum, I see no problem with changing the constitution. Even some Western leaders have asked to change the rules so they can stay in office for longer than two terms," he adds.

Mr Aslanov leafs through some papers on his desk, pulling out an article about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"Just look at Mr Bloomberg", he says, referring to his attempts to extend term-limits.

He goes on to point out that former US President Franklin D Roosevelt was elected to four terms between 1933 and 1945.

Radio silence

Opposition concerns stem not only from the call for a referendum, but also from the decision last December to prohibit international radio stations from broadcasting on FM frequencies - a move that has forced Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and the BBC World Service off local transmitters.

The government refers to legal problems, but when we contacted legal experts they said the problems were 'made up'
Khadija Ismayilova, Baku Bureau Chief, Radio Free Europe

Khadija Ismayilova, the Baku bureau chief for RFE, also known as Radio Liberty, says 90% of Azeri listeners tuned in to the station's FM frequency before it was taken off the air.

"According to feedback [from our listeners] the ban is a great loss to them. Many used to listen on their car radios," she adds.

Ms Ismayilova says she is suspicious of the official reason for the decision.

"Officially, the government refers to legal problems, but when we contacted legal experts they said the problems were 'made up'. We, too, think it is a made up problem, a political issue," she says.

But Mr Aslanov denies it is a crackdown on freedom of speech.

Map

"In the 21st Century, it is impossible to silence anybody. People will speak out in another way if you shut down FM stations," he says.

"We don't try to silence anybody, but I am against double standards."

"Some European countries stopped broadcasting foreign stations because they thought that country was trying to spread its ideology. We don't do that. We are pleased to see the broadcasters in our country but they have to broadcast in an unbiased way," he adds.

Construction boom

Mention the president on the streets of Baku and it is hard to find voices of discontent.

Baku
Azerbaijan's resource-rich economy has fuelled an ongoing economic boom

The city is a mixture of old and new. Glass skyscrapers merge with ornate facades dating back to Azerbaijan's oil boom a century ago.

Though the country is not insulated from the global economic crisis, its resource-rich economy has fuelled an ongoing construction boom.

In my search for disgruntlement, I approach a group of unemployed builders, waiting for work at a well known pick-up point for anyone in search of cheap labour. Locally, it is known as the slavery market.

Why should I betray my country by voting against the president?
Baku resident

A dozen men complain that work is becoming hard to find. But when I turn the topic of conversation to the referendum, they changed their tune.

"I don't blame the president for my problems," says one man, who refuses to give his name.

"Thanks to the president there has been a lot of construction. We have built many buildings. It means we are healthy, we have arms and legs. We can go and work and earn money."

"Why should I betray my country by voting against the president?" he asks.

It is hard to tell if the professed affection for the president is genuinely felt - but he is far from the only unemployed worker I speak to who refuses to blame the president for the lack of jobs.

It is apparent to me wherever I go in Baku - be it an impoverished suburb, or a swanky hotel - that most are ready to vote in favour of the sweeping changes proposed by President Aliyev.

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SEE ALSO
Aliyev re-elected in Azerbaijan
15 Oct 08 |  Europe
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Regions and territories: Nagorno-Karabakh
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