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Uzbekistan: Poll To Decide On Extending Presidential Term

Tashkent, 27 January 2002 (NCA) -- Uzbeks voted today in a referendum on whether to extend a presidential term from five to seven years. Early turnout is reported at 70 percent only hours after polling stations opened across the country. Voters are also being asked whether the country's one chamber parliament should be enlarged to two chambers. Preliminary results are expected by tomorrow.

The referendum has been shunned by observers from the U.S. and criticized by human rights groups. The U.S. said it and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe feel that conditions for a free and fair vote are not currently present in the republic.

Critics view the poll as a ploy by President Islam Karimov to prolong his grip on power. Karimov, who won elections in 1991 and 2000, is in theory due to step down in 2005, as he can only stand for two five-year terms under Uzbekistan's Constitution.

But casting his ballot this morning, Karimov did not rule out that he might run again or that the rules concerning the president might be changed.