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Tajikistan: Voters Will Choose President, Change Constitution

The last in our four-part series on Central Asian elections looks at Tajikistan, where voters will be casting ballots next month in a constitutional referendum, as well as for a new president in November.

Prague, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in Tajikistan will go to the polls twice this autumn, once in a national referendum in September to approve changes to the constitution and again sometime before November 6 to choose a president.

Preparations for the referendum are already well underway, while the presidential race has been largely ignored so far. The elections are the first since the end of the country's five-year civil war in 1997.

In the referendum, voters will be asked to validate changes to the constitution as required by the 1997 peace accord that ended the civil war. The current constitution was approved two years into the war and totally excluded input from the main opposition group, the United Tajik Opposition (UTO).

The National Reconciliation Commission is charged with working out referendum wording acceptable to both the government and the opposition. While details of the referendum are not known, the commission has forwarded proposals to parliament. These include asking voters to approve a longer term in office for the president and the creation of a bi-cameral parliament.

However the proposals are worded, the country's geography poses a potential problem to a free and fair vote. The UTO has said it wants to have at least one representative at every polling station or vote-counting center. This presents a problem, as the country is mountainous and has a poor network of roads. There are also areas in Tajikistan that were never sympathetic to the UTO, creating possible security concerns.

Andrew Ellis is a Central Asian election specialist for the United Nations. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, he said proper implementation of the referendum's changes to the constitution might solve some electoral problems in the future:

"The [changes to the constitution] and the way which they are implemented would work to ensure that political campaigning can be conducted by all participants in a fair and free atmosphere. Violence and intimidation would not bar the parties from putting their views across."

Preparations for the referendum are simple compared with those needed for the presidential election.

President Imomali Rakhmonov has been Tajikistan's leader since 1992 and the winner of a 1994 vote that was marred by irregularities. He is widely expected to seek re-election, though he has not yet made an official announcement. Who will oppose him is unknown.

Ibrahim Usmonov is a Tajik parliamentary deputy and a member of the National Reconciliation Commission. In an interview last week with RFE/RL, Usmonov downplayed the absence of an alternative presidential candidate:

"As to why we don't know about any other candidates, it is still too early to say. Not even the president has declared himself a candidate yet." Running against an incumbent is usually hard, but in Central Asia it is almost impossible. With leaders in other countries in the region successfully using the courts to scare off potential opposition, few individuals have yet to come forward to announce their interest in the post. They may be taking advantage of a Tajik electoral law that prevents criminal cases being opened against declared candidates within the 80-day period prior to the election.

Salimjon Aioubov and Farangiz Najibullah of the Tajik Service contributed to this article.