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Tajikistan: Referendum Seen As Smokescreen To Prolong President's Grip On Power

Tajiks are due to vote on 22 June in a nationwide referendum on more than 50 changes to the constitution. Many believe there is only one amendment that matters, however -- a proposal that would extend President Imomali Rakhmonov's term in office for another 14 years. If the amendment succeeds, the 50-year-old Rakhmonov could end up ruling the country for as many as 28 years.

Prague, 20 June 12003 (RFE/RL) -- Two Tajik political groups, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan and the Moscow-based National Movement of Tajikistan, say they will boycott the 22 June referendum.

Tajiks are expected to vote on 56 constitutional amendments, such as the legalization of alternative, private education and paid health care. However, it is widely believed that the entire process is aimed at securing what would amount to almost a lifetime presidency for incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov, whose current term expires in 2006.

Hokimsho Muhabbatov, the head of the National Movement of Tajikistan, has urged Rakhmonov to cancel the vote, or at least to refrain from seeking another term in office if the constitutional changes are approved. "The new amendments should apply to future presidents, not to the incumbent Imomali Rakhmonov," Muhabbatov said.

The leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, also called on voters not to participate in the referendum, which asks citizens to decide on dozens of constitutional changes with a single "yes" or "no" vote.

"We are sure it is not going to be a transparent and democratic referendum. I want to clarify our party's duties and responsibilities before Tajik society and announce that the Democratic Party will not participate in the referendum," Iskandarov said.

Some other Tajik political groups, such as the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party, are calling on people to vote "no" instead of boycotting the referendum, while leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party say they will participate "for the sake of stability" in the country.

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.

Supporters of the amendment say it is simply an effort to bring Tajikistan's constitution into line with those of other countries, many of which have two-term presidencies.

Observers say Tajik citizens are ill-informed about the issues included in the referendum. Tajiks have limited access to information. Independent newspapers and nongovernmental television and radio stations try not to criticize the president directly. Some have closed due to financial hardship. Access to the Internet in Tajikistan is limited.

Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many Tajiks interviewed on the street by RFE/RL say they have not heard of the proposed constitutional amendments.

"I don't know what kind of referendum it is," said one person in Dushanbe. "I don't really know exactly, but I heard that a poll is taking place. I think it is about a new law," said another.

Many of those who have heard about the referendum express their disappointment with state-run media, which does not give Rakhmonov's political opponents a chance to voice their opinions. While discussing the constitutional amendments, the local media focuses only on changes that affect the social system and hardly ever mention the amendment concerning the president's term in office.

"I am sure this referendum is illegal. The current president has been ruling the country already for 14 years. In these 14 years, we did not see any positive changes that benefit the people. What should we expect from this person? Our printed media, radio, and television never cover the opposite opinion to the referendum," said another person in Dushanbe.

Representatives in Dushanbe from both the United Nations Tajikistan Office of Peace-Building (UNTOP) and the OSCE say they will not send observers to monitor the referendum because the invitation from Tajik officials was sent too late for them to adequately prepare.

But the decisions by UNTOP and the OSCE, as well as the boycott of the vote by the opposition, are unlikely to stop the referendum from going ahead as planned. Officials from the Central Commission for Elections insist the vote is the "Tajik people's will, and objections by international bodies will not put its outcome under question."

However, Tajik political analysts say the fact that two respected international institutions are distancing themselves from the referendum means the vote will do nothing to improve the Tajik government's image abroad.

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

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.