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Tajikistan: Referendum To Ask Voters To Extend President's Term

  • Farangis Najibullah

A special commission has been set up in the Tajik parliament to discuss up to 30 new amendments to the country's constitution. The amendments deal with a variety of issues, from the death penalty to health care. But many believe there is only one amendment that matters, a proposal that would extend President Imomali Rakhmonov's term in office for another 14 years, and that the other amendments have been proposed only as a smokescreen. If the amendment succeeds, the 50-year-old Rakhmonov could end up staying in power for as many as 28 years.

Prague, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tajik parliamentary deputies like Mavluda Yusufova, who are campaigning for an extension to the Tajik president's term in office, say they merely want to change the constitution to bring it in line with those of other countries. "According to the constitution, we have a single-term presidency. We proposed an amendment that would pave the way for a two-term presidency, just like other countries," Yusufova said.

Many local experts and opposition members say it is not that simple. They fear that Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and people in his close circle are trying to use the amendment to extend Rakhmonov's own term in office for many more years.

Rakhmonov came to power as the head of the Supreme Soviet in 1992 amid a civil war. The Tajik parliament had decided to abolish the presidency, and the head of the Supreme Soviet was, in fact, the leader of the country.

In 1994, the first constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan restored the presidency. In November of that year, Rakhmonov was elected to his first term in office in a controversial election. He was re-elected in 1999 in a vote criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

An amendment to the Tajik Constitution prior to the 1999 election extended the president's term in office from five to seven years but limited it to one term. The next election is scheduled for 2006.

Abdulmajid Dostiyev, the head of the special parliamentary commission for amendments to the constitution, told RFE/RL that Rakhmonov himself initiated the latest amendment. "It was President Rakhmonov's proposal to adopt a two-term presidency with seven years for each term, and this opportunity [to run for president] is open for every citizen. The parliamentary commission is going to support the proposal," Dostiyev said.

The amendments, including extending the president's term in office, are expected to be put to a nationwide referendum. Observers say Tajik citizens will probably have little idea about what they're voting on, however. They have limited access to information. Independent newspapers and nongovernmental television and radio stations try not to criticize the president directly. Some have been closed down because of financial hardship. Access to the Internet is limited.

Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many Tajiks say they had not heard of the proposed constitutional amendments.

"I have only heard some rumors that they are going to change the constitution. But there was nothing about this issue on Tajik television, radio, or in newspapers," an unidentified resident of Dushanbe said.

Many of those who have heard about the referendum express their disappointment.

"They have been making and amending the law for themselves only," said one resident of Dushanbe. "People don't have enough to eat. Why spend so much money for so many referendums? They are changing the constitution for the sake of one person [Rakhmonov], as if no one else in Tajikistan is good enough to run for the presidency. Enough is enough."

A date for the referendum has not been set. Campaigners for the amendment insist that the opportunity to run for president is open to all. However, with the memories of two controversial presidential elections and another two parliamentary votes still fresh, members of the Tajik opposition say they find it hard to believe that the amendment is not aimed at simply securing Rakhmonov's rule for another 14 years.

Rakhmonov's rival in the 1995 election, Abdulmalik Abdullojonov, was charged with corruption and left the country. After Abdullojonov fled, his younger brother was charged in a plot to assassinate Rakhmonov. He was convicted, sentenced to death, and -- despite objections from human rights groups -- executed.

Rakhmonov's main challenger in the 1999 election, Davlat Usman, was unable to find out whether the Central Election Commission was even going to allow him to run for the presidency until one day before the vote.

The deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Muhammad Sharif Himmatzoda, said that despite criticism from international organizations and Tajik citizens, the government and its leaders do whatever they like. "What would international organizations, such as the OSCE say about such amendments? We don't live in the jungle. We should take into consideration that Tajikistan is a part of the international community, and its laws should conform to international standards," Himmatzoda said.

So far, international organizations have shown little public interest in Rakhmonov's apparent efforts to stay in power. Both United Nations and OSCE representatives in Dushanbe will only say they are studying the amendments.

Turaj Atobaki, an expert on Central Asian affairs at Amsterdam University in the Netherlands, told RFE/RL that Rakhmonov should leave office after his current term ends in 2006 and give someone else the opportunity to lead. "The very first amendment in the constitution should prevent the current president from running for another term in the office. If they make such an amendment, it would prove that they really want to make democratic changes in order to prevent autocracy," Atobaki said.

However, Dostiyev, the head of the special parliamentary commission on the constitutional changes, seems to make no secret of the fact that the amendment is aimed at securing Rakhmonov's presidency for many years to come. "In the first [presidential] term, you just learn the job. After the seven-year term, if he stays [in power] for another two or three terms, it would be for the benefit of the society," Dostiyev said.

Rakhmonov's supporters argue that he came to power amid a civil war, when no one else dared to run the country. Rakhmonov brought peace to Tajikistan, they say, and he has every reason to stay in office.

Those who oppose Rakhmonov's rule point to South African leader Nelson Mandela, who helped to end apartheid in his country but who, out of respect for the law and democracy, retired from the presidency in 1999 after serving five years.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

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