Baku: Azerbaijanis went to the polls Monday in a controversial referendum on handing extra powers to long-serving President Ilham Aliyev, with opposition and rights groups criticising the proposed constitutional changes as undemocratic.
The amendments would extend the president`s term in office from five to seven years, and create a powerful new first vice-president position and several other vice-presidencies.
Opposition groups staged mass protests ahead of the referendum, denouncing it as Aliyev`s effort to extend his family`s long grip on power in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
The Council of Europe`s constitutional law experts said the draft modifications of the constitution "would severely upset the balance of power by giving unprecedented powers to the president."
Amnesty International said "the amendments will lead to violations of the right to freedom of association."
"The referendum has been accompanied by arrests and intimidation," the rights group said in a statement. "Those who have attempted to criticise and campaign against these proposals have faced assaults and harassment by the authorities."
Ilham Aliyev, 54, has led the country since his father Heydar, a former Communist-era boss, died after a decade in power in 2003.
He last won a landslide election victory in 2013 despite OSCE observers pointing to significant problems with the vote, with the next elections to be held in 2018.
He can stand for an unlimited number of terms after a disputed referendum in 2009 scrapped the two-term limit on presidential mandates.
If passed, the referendum would introduce a new position of first vice president -- who would become the country`s number two, instead of the prime minister as is the case now.
The amendments also allow the president to call snap leadership elections at will, and easily dissolve parliament.
Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim but secular country wedged between Iran and Russia on the Caspian Sea, has sought to position itself as a modern European state.
It hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 and this year hosted its maiden Formula One race in Baku.
But activists have raised concerns over alleged human rights violations, with Human Rights Watch in May criticising the country for "cracking down on human rights activists and critical journalists."
"President Ilham Aliyev is the person most responsible for Azerbaijan`s appalling human rights record of the last decade," Freedom House said last week.
Polls opened in the referendum at 8am (0400 GMT and were to close 12 hours later.