(Bloomberg) -- Azerbaijan holds a referendum Monday on constitutional changes that aim to hand sweeping new powers to President Ilham Aliyev, whose family has ruled the country for more than two decades.
Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after his late father Heydar governed for 10 years, wants to extend the presidential term to seven years from five. He’s also seeking powers to call snap elections and to appoint a vice president for the first time.
Aliyev, 54, also wants to abolish an age limit of 35 years for presidential candidates, prompting speculation that he may be grooming his 19-year-old son Heydar to continue the family’s dominance of the Caspian Sea nation, which has attracted more than $60 billion from BP Plc and its partners in the past two decades for energy projects.
The referendum “looks like an effort to turn the country into a central Asian-style state with one regime ruling it as a dynasty,” Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, said by e-mail. “It’s possible that Azerbaijan will be ruled by either Ilham Aliyev or his father for 30 years,” while there’s “already talk of Ilham’s son being groomed for the succession,” he said.
Aliyev wants to change the constitution for the third time in less than 15 years as the former Soviet Union’s third-largest crude exporter reels from an economic crisis triggered by the collapse in oil prices. The central bank raised its main interest rate to 15 percent from 9.5 percent, the highest since 2008, in an emergency increase this month. The manat lost half its value against the dollar last year as the regulator burned through more than two-thirds of its reserves to defend the currency before shifting to a managed floating exchange rate.
The manat is the worst performer against the dollar this quarter among ex-Soviet currencies, having weakened 5.5 percent. The Azeri economy is expected to contract 2.4 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The country’s “economic woes may challenge the political stability, which probably explains the president’s initiatives to strengthen his power and guarantee a friendly power transition if or when needed,” Dmitry Polevoy, chief economist for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States at ING Groep NV in Moscow, said by e-mail.
The constitutional amendments announced in July are all but certain to pass after a low-key campaign without televised debates or public polling. The changes are a “continuation of political and economic reforms” in Azerbaijan, Ali Hasanov, a political aide to Aliyev, said at an August 31 meeting in Baku.
The proposals will only strengthen the “dynastic rule” of the Aliyev family, Ali Karimli, leader of the opposition People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party, said on Facebook. The party held protest rallies attended by several thousand people in Baku this month that were sanctioned by the authorities.
The extension of the presidential term “cannot be justified” and “is at odds with the European constitutional heritage,” the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe said in a Sept. 20 analysis of the changes published on its website. Aliyev’s “unprecedented” new powers under the revised constitution will “reduce his political accountability and weaken
parliament even further,” it said.
The referendum “creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who’s chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said in a Sept. 8 letter to Aliyev. The proposed constitutional changes “will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights.”
Aliyev is only the latest head of a former Soviet state to seek to entrench his rule. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 59, who’s been in power since 2006, signed constitutional changes this month that will lengthen the presidential term to seven years from five at elections next February as well as scrap an age limit of 70 for candidates.
Vladimir Putin had Russia’s constitution changed in 2008 to extend presidential terms to six years from four, and he’s widely expected to seek a fourth term in 2018 that will take him to a nearly quarter-century in power by 2024. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who’s been president since 1994, was elected for another five years to 2020 last year.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled since 1989 and secured a fifth five-year term in 2015 with 95.5 percent in early elections described as “non-competitive” by international observers. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has held power since 1992 and won a fourth election for another seven years in 2013.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the quote in the fourth paragraph to clarify that it refers to the late Heydar Aliyev.)