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Tajikistan: Referendum Could Extend President's Term

The lower house of the Tajik parliament has paved the way for a referendum in June that could extend President Imomali Rakhmonov's time in office past its expected expiration in three years. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua reports the practice is common in Central Asia, where all of the leaders in one way or another have extended their terms in office to hold on to power in the past decade.

Prague, 25 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The lower house of Tajikistan's parliament has reportedly taken the first step toward holding a referendum in June on amending the constitution.

It is hoped that the changes will increase the role of parliament, strengthen mechanisms for protecting civil rights, and promote the development of a market economy. The changes would also allow President Imomali Rakhmonov to seek another seven years in office when his term expires in 2006.

Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda, a member of parliament of the Islamic Renaissance Party, spoke to RFE/RL.

"The issue is related to Article 63 of the constitution, which says that a person has the right to be elected president only once, for seven years. The purpose here is to eliminate this point."

The proposal to hold the referendum will now be considered by a joint session of parliament. If the referendum is held and approved, the amendments would cancel the results of a 1999 referendum that extended the president's term from five to seven years and introduced the one-term limit instead of the previous two.

Rahmatullah VAliyev -- spokesman of the Democratic Party - expressed his unhappiness at the prospect.

"The option to be elected multiple times is opposed to democratic principles," he said. "And I think that if we change Article 63 of the constitution we should also modify Article 1, which states that Tajikistan is a democratic, law-based, and secular state."

Rakhmanov, 50, was first elected in November 1994, after serving as head of state as speaker of parliament for two years. He took office for a second term in 1999 following his near unanimous re-election, which was widely considered to be flawed and unfair, though peaceful.

It's not clear what is motivating the proposed changes, but Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, says Rakhmonov would hardly be the first Central Asian leader to change the rules in order to stay in office. Rhodes says Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, or "Turkmenbashi" (head of the Turkmens), has served as a model for the region's other heads of state.

Central Asian presidents "look to one another for examples," he said. "Turkmenbashi has provided a kind of prototype for leaders in the region with his approach towards democracy," in which democratic principles are disregarded, he says. "More and more the other presidents seem to emulating the example of Turkmenbashi."

Niyazov, who celebrated his 63rd birthday last week, was elected president-for-life by the Turkmen People's Council in 1999. Turkmenistan's last presidential election dates from 1992, when Niyazov was installed in office for a five-year term after the adoption of the constitution. In 1994, he extended his tenure in office with a referendum for an additional five years.

Natalia Ablova, director of the Bishkek-based Kyrgyz-American Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, says Turkmenistan is an extreme case. Still, she insists, all local presidents have repeatedly extended their terms in office and held onto power since independence in 1991. She denounces the methods used by local leaders to cling to power.

"They are not republics for sure. They are emirates," she says. In Uzbekistan, a referendum held in January 2002 approved the extension of the president's term from five to seven years, allowing Islam Karimov, 65, to stay in power until 2007 instead of 2005.

Karimov became president of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991. In 1995 he extended his term in office for five more years through the use of a referendum, and was reelected in 2000.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is 62, has indicated he may run for a further presidential term in 2006. The constitution, approved in 1998, abolished the maximum age limit as well as the two-term limit for the presidency, and extended the presidential term of office from five to seven years.

Nazarbaev -- who was elected president of the Kazakh SSR in 1990 -- had his term prolonged for a further five years in a referendum in 1995, and was reelected in Kazakhstan's last presidential election in 1999.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is a notable break from this tradition. Akaev has said he will not run for another term when his time in office expires in 2005. Ablova, however, notes the country's leadership has taken an increasingly authoritarian line and Akaev has no obvious successor.

Two years ago Akaev, now 58, won the presidency for a third five-year term even though the constitution limits the president to two terms in office. The Constitutional Court ruled that Akaev could run again since he had been elected only once since the country adopted a new constitution in 1993.

Rhodes explains what motivates Central Asia's leaders to hold on to power: "Partly it has to do with political culture. They don't fully understand that in a democratic society the leader serves the people at the will of the people as a temporary custodian of authority. And so they exhibit a different political culture, [similar to what] one might find in a monarchy. They see themselves not as leaders of a government but as the leaders of a society, of an entire people."

Besides, Rhodes notes, there is also an economic motivation. Some of the presidents have become extremely rich while in office and don't want to lose a lucrative source of income.

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