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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Referendum Reform for Democracy or Dynasty?

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Another week in Baku, another round of furious exchanges between government and opposition and the usual calls for the president to step down.

This time the row is over a referendum to be held across the nation in three weeks' time on dozens of changes to the Constitution, brought in just seven years ago.

The president, Heidar Aliyev, says the changes are essential to bring Azerbaijan in line with other democracies. As a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Azerbaijan needs to reflect this in its Constitution, he says.

But opposition groups see more sinister motives behind the reforms. They say the amendments are a thinly veiled attempt by the elderly president to shoehorn his son, Ilham, into the presidency.

If the nation votes "yes" to the proposed changes, presidential candidates can win with just 51 percent of the votes in the first round, down from two-thirds. And the new Constitution says the name of the president doesn't need to be announced until 14 days after the election (the current limit is seven).

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But the most controversial change is that if anything happens to the president, who is 79 (some say he is much older) and suffers from a heart condition, his prime minister will take over until new elections are called. Unlike in other countries, in Azerbaijan, the prime minister is directly appointed by the president.

"It's a simple step now for the president to make his son prime minister and the Aliyev dynasty will be complete," opposition leaders say.

On Friday, I went to see Shakhin Aliyev, a lawyer and author of the reforms, in his office at the presidential administration. (He's not related to the president -- Aliyev is as common a surname here as Smith or Jones.)

"Excuse me if I'm a little hoarse," the lawyer said. "I've been in consultations with the president for the last four hours."

He told me he'd helped put together Azerbaijan's first Constitution after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with time, he'd noticed a number of flaws. "With any luck, after this year's referendum, we won't need to hold another one for at least five years," he said.

Meanwhile, international monitoring groups are complaining that they haven't been given enough warning to provide election observers for the vote, and the opposition is calling on people to boycott the election.

All this matters little to the president. In the unlikely event the new Constitution is rejected, he'll simply find another way to make the changes. After all, it isn't as though he hasn't manipulated elections in the past.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.