DECEMBER 26 2008 15:08h
The ex-Soviet republic as been dominated by the Aliyev family for more than three decades.
Azerbaijan's parliament on Friday called a referendum in March on whether a two-term presidential limit should be scrapped, a move likely to prolong leader Ilham Aliyev's grip on power.
Parliament, dominated by the pro-government Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party which is led by Aliyev, voted to hold the vote on March 18 in the oil-producing nation. Aliyev's second and last term allowed by the constitution is due to end in 2013.
Few doubt that Aliyev's presidency will be extended.
"Azerbaijan's nation will openly and freely express its confidence in the country's President Ilham Aliyev," parliamentarian Ali Ahmedov, Yeni Azerbaijan's deputy leader, told the legislature before the vote.
The date of the referendum was set by a 100-7 vote.
The ex-Soviet republic, which lies along the Caspian between Russia and Iran, has been dominated by the Aliyev family for more than three decades -- first under former Communist boss Heydar Aliyev and since 2003 by his son Ilham.
Ilham Aliyev, 47, won his current five-year term in October in a landslide election boycotted by the opposition and judged by European monitors as less than democratic.
The president is blamed by critics for concentrating too much power in his own hands though he remains popular after years of an economic boom fuelled by high energy prices while the opposition remains weak and fractured.
Anticipating possible opposition criticism, Ahmedov told parliament "one should not view the right of one person to be elected president several times as a violation of democratic principles".
"If the nation several times elects one person as its president this means he has truly lived up to its expectations."
Police on Wednesday broke up a rally by a dozen opposition activists, who tried to protest against the referendum outside the Constitutional Court headquarters.
Before being pushed away by police, the protesters briefly unfolded banners reading "Down with the monarchy!" and "We do not need a king!"
Like other emerging economies, Azerbaijan is now grappling with the impact of the global economic crisis, the fallout of which could threaten Aliyev's popularity. The opposition hopes this might ease his grip on power