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Azerbaijan Voters Contemplate Controversial Referendum - 2002-08-24

Voting stations are due to close shortly in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, where voters are participating in a controversial referendum on proposed constitutional changes. Opposition groups are boycotting the referendum, which proposes changes in the way the president and parliament are elected.

Azerbaijan's citizens were asked to vote on more than 30 proposed amendments to the 1995 constitution. The changes include allowing a president to be elected by a simple majority, rather than two-thirds of the vote and eliminating the party list system, in which voters cast ballots for parties in addition to individual candidates.

Azerbaijan's president, Heydar Aliyev, says the referendum is needed to bring the constitution into line with international conventions.

But Azerbaijan's political opposition says the poll's primary aim is to cement the eventual transfer of power from the ailing president to his handpicked successor, his son.

More than 30 opposition parties and organizations have already said they will not recognize the results of the vote, which they say will hurt democracy.

International monitors, as well as the United States, have also expressed concern about the referendum. The U.S. State Department earlier called for a delay, in order to allow Azerbaijan's electorate to be better informed about the proposed constitutional changes.

Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission says preliminary results of the voting could come as early as Sunday.