Baku, Azerbaijan.jpg
Photograph: Photo by David Davidson, used under CC BY

Azerbaijan held a popular referendum on Monday on whether to boost the powers of longtime President Ilham Aliyev as the oil-dependent state on the Caspian Sea struggles with a receding economy.

Aliyev, who has led the authoritarian former Soviet republic for more than a decade, initiated the referendum, seeking to extend the presidential term from five years to seven and enable him to dissolve parliament and declare a snap presidential election whenever he wants.

The referendum is expected to pass, "not because the majority of voters approve it, because the authorities approve it," Rasul Jafarov, a lawyer and prominent human rights defender in Azerbaijan, told dpa.

Jafarov, who was released from prison earlier this year after serving 11 months on charges his supporters have maintained were trumped up to silence him, called the referendum a "very dangerous signal.

"I think there is no legal or social basis for these amendments to the constitution," Jafarov said, adding that one especially concerning amendment would enable the government to seize personal property.

The amendment says the government could take the property if there is a vague "social need," Jafarov said. "What they mean when they say 'social need' is unclear."

Jafarov is one of Azerbaijan's best-known human rights defenders. He and several other imprisoned activists received a presidential pardon in March, in a move seen as a concession before Aliyev headed to the United States on an official visit.

Aliyev cast his ballot on Monday in a polling station at a middle school in Baku before television cameras. His wife and members of his family followed suit, state news agency AZERTAC reported.

Aliyev, 54, has ruled this country on the Caspian Sea since 2003, coming to power shortly before the death of the previous president, his father Heydar Aliyev.

Monday's referendum also seeks to get rid of the minimum age restriction for running for president, as well as lower the minimum age for running for parliament, from 25 years old to 18. This would enable Aliyev to groom a member of his family to become his successor from an earlier age.

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