Tajikistan: Referendum Result Controversy

Decision to amend several areas of the constitution may backfire on President Rahmonov.

Tajikistan: Referendum Result Controversy

Decision to amend several areas of the constitution may backfire on President Rahmonov.

Tajikistan has been criticised for moving further away from democracy following a controversial referendum that could pave the way for President Emomali Rahmonov to stay in power until 2020.


Previously, a Tajik president could only be elected for one seven-year period. Under the proposed changes, Rahmonov, who was due to leave office in 2006, could stand for re-election on two further occasions after his current term is over - and remain in office for 17 more years.


Speculation had been rife for months that Rahmonov - who had already amended the constitution in 1999 to extend his term from five to seven years - would do so again as the end of his mandate drew closer.


The result of the referendum - in which, officials say, 96 per cent of voters participated - has caused concern among the international community, and has already led to one high-profile figure leaving his post.


The highly regarded Social Democratic Party chairman Rahmatullo Zoirov resigned as presidential aide on June 26, in protest at the leadership's decision to ignore his party's public criticism of the proposed amendments. Zoirov told the media that it would be "politically unethical" for him to remain in both jobs.


The former Soviet republic's Central Election Committee said that its preliminary results showed that just over 93 per cent of the country's three million voters had approved the amendments in the June 22 plebiscite.


But the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the United States have both voiced concern over the referendum and its result.


The OSCE's Richard Chambers, of the organisation's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, told the media that its recommendations to improve electoral procedures - which were handed down following elections three years ago - had not been heeded.


The unusually high turnout has also led to doubts over the accuracy of the result. The OSCE noted that as the referendum only contained one question - whether the people were in favour of making 56 amendments to the constitution - voters had little opportunity to express their opinions.


And on June 24, US State Department official Philip Reeker said, "We have stated repeatedly that the constitutional referendum in Tajikistan must correspond to international standards of transparency." He added that Dushanbe must submit its leadership to the test of regular free and fair elections.


Most opposition parties had criticised the process even before the referendum was held, as it did not list the proposed amendments - just the options "yes" or "no".


The Democratic Party of Tajikistan, DPT - the only opposition movement to boycott the referendum - condemned the process as fundamentally undemocratic. Its leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov told IWPR, "Our president speaks in the name of the people, but does not allow them to express their opinion."


And there has been a good deal of unease among the public. Dushanbe engineer Ravshan Sabitov told IWPR that he had voted against the changes, as he didn't approve of every single proposed amendment. Local pensioner Saidjon Isaev also chose to tick "no" after learning that two sections would free the government of the obligation to provide free health care and secondary schooling.


International observers also noted incidents where Russian speakers were given Tajik-language ballot papers at the polling booths, making it impossible to read what they were voting for.


But even where language was not a barrier, many people did not understand what they were being asked, as the full list of proposed changes was only published in two state newspapers, neither of which has a large circulation.


Nonetheless, while the actual number of ballot participants is questionable, its clear many did turn out to vote for the changes.


Dushanbe housewife Nigina Saidalieva said she did so because of a strong belief in the president - a view shared by a significant proportion of the population, which credits him with bringing peace to the republic after five years of brutal civil war. "President Rahmonov brought peace to Tajikistan, and he is irreplaceable. Let him keep working and lead the country; I think then we will become a real democratic country," said local doctor Gulnora Abdullaeva.


According to a number of local observers, however, the Tajik parliament allowed the referendum to go ahead in order to discredit the president - not strengthen his position.


Independent political analyst Sukhrob Sharipov described the process as a "knife in Rahmonov's back", as the plebiscite will give the international community even more reason to accuse him of totalitarianism, thus damaging his reputation further.


Rahmonov himself is staying tight-lipped about his plans for the future. Asked by journalists if he would stand for re-election in 2006, he said that he "had not yet thought about it".


But he rejected suggestions that the referendum was a backward step, pointing out that he had taken a number of measures to curb abuse of power, and that it was the right of the people to present a presidential candidate capable of taking the republic forward.


"In time we will create a civil society and new presidential candidates will appear - that's the way it should be," Rahmonov said.


Zafar Abdullaev is an independent journalist, Saida Nazarova is the pseudonym for a journalist in


Dushanbe


Tajikistan
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