Tajikistan: Rahmonov Set to Perpetuate Rule

A referendum in June is likely to give the president the right to stay in office for many more years.

Tajikistan: Rahmonov Set to Perpetuate Rule

A referendum in June is likely to give the president the right to stay in office for many more years.

Tajikistan looks set to change the law to allow President Imomali Rahmonov to seek a third term in office, and a fourth after that.

In March, the Tajik parliament approved plans to hold a national referendum on June 22. The poll is expected to result in changes to the constitution ending the current ban on presidents standing for more than one term.

Rahmonov won't be the first Central Asian leader to take steps to perpetuate his rule - in fact he is the only one of the five heads of state who hasn't done so to date.

He became president in 1994 when the post was created, although he has been in charge of the country since 1992.

He was re-elected in 1999 in a ballot viewed as flawed by most international observers. That election was accompanied by another referendum, which gave him a seven-year term instead of the previous five, but by way of compensation it stipulated that from now on presidents could have only one term of office.

Now, Rahmonov is seeking to have his cake and eat it. He is already in his second term, and the June 22 referendum will let him stand for office two more times when his current tenure runs out in 2006.

He tried to justify the proposed change in his state of the nation address on April 4, saying that no other country limits its president to a single term.

The referendum will consist of 56 questions in all, covering social and economic matters as well. But opposition leaders are in no doubt that its purpose is to prolong Rakhmonov 's rule. What's interesting is that - at least publicly - most of them appear to have accepted this as a fait accompli.

This even includes Sayed Abdullo Nuri, the leader of the Islamic Revival Party, IRP. The IRP led a bitter five-year civil war against Rahmonov 's regime before laying down its arms and accepting a peace deal.

In a recent interview with the Azia Plus news agency, Nuri said, "We do not care whether there is one seven-year term or two. The most important thing for us is that it should not undermine peace and unity.

"In any case, I think that since it has happened, there is no need for a row over it."

Some opposition leaders have been harsher, including Nuri's deputy in the IRP, Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda. "If Rahmonov stands for election again it will be a political adventure, and a humiliation that goes against democratic values," he said. "We are not living in the jungle. Tajikistan is part of the international community and we should adhere to international standards and rules."

But it is unlikely that such critical voices will have much of a say.

Actually winning another term in 2006 will not too be much of a problem. Rahmonov has played a canny political game since 1997, and has gained the upper hand in the power-sharing arrangements that were forced on him in return for peace.

His People's Democratic Party continues to dominate parliament. His main opponent, the IRP, has gone from being a powerful Islamic guerrilla force to a civilian party which - despite continuing support in parts of the country - came a poor third in the 2000 parliamentary election.

The Communists and the Democrats have more seats than the IRP but they too are hampered by Rahmonov 's control over central government, local affairs, and much of the media.

Elections are subject to manipulation. It's easy to buy someone's vote in a country as poor as Tajikistan.

A final factor in favour of Rahmonov is that he has grown as a statesman over the years, and the sense of familiarity and continuity appeals to at least some of his electorate as they recall the turmoil of civil war.

Tajikistan's constitutional re-jig will follow in a tradition set by its neighbours since the fall of communism. In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov has twice used referenda to extend his term. The Kazak leader Nursultan Nazarbaev has been around since 1991 with the help of a plebiscite and constitutional changes, and he may well stand again in two years' time. Exploiting a technicality, Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akaev has served three terms instead of the two allowed in the constitution, although he has said he won't go for a fourth.

All these complicated legislative moves were just too much work for the Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov, who simply had himself made president for life in 1999.

There is no workable model for regime change in the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. By marginalising or totally eliminating political opposition, the five presidents have reduced to near zero the risk to their power now - but have inadvertently increased the possibility of a bloody transition down the road.

Rahmonov, like his neighbours, faces three possible ends to his rule. The best option, for him at least, is to install a successor tough enough to succeed in maintaining the status quo. The second scenario is a palace coup from within the current elite, eliminating him and upsetting a fragile political balance. Third, he is toppled by some kind of popular uprising or insurgency, possibly backed by another country.

How about a fourth option, where the nascent multi-party system is allowed to grow, and something approximating to free and fair elections to parliament are held in Tajikistan next year? That might allow some of the massive concerns facing the country - regional rivalries, rural poverty and dismal social provision - to be vented and perhaps even addressed in a way seen to be fair to all.

But when you have a president who's been around for the last decade and is still only 50, and he's already moving to hold on to power until 2020, it's hard to talk about giving a greater say to the opposition.

Saida Nazarova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Dushanbe

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