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The Central Asian Referendum

important would eliminate the term limit for incumbent President Emomali Rahmon and lower the age of eligibility to become president.
important would eliminate the term limit for incumbent President Emomali Rahmon and lower the age of eligibility to become president.

Tajikistan is conducting a referendum on amendments to the constitution on May 22. As is typical of Central Asian referendums, the May 22 poll is mainly about the executive branch of power. Almost every referendum in Central Asia has been about the executive branch of power and with one very notable exception, these referendums are usually about giving the executive branch more power.

Tajikistan's May 22 referendum concerns 41 proposed amendments to the constitution. The two most important would eliminate the term limit for incumbent President Emomali Rahmon and lower the age of eligibility to become president.

By my count, there have been 15 referendums in Central Asia, excluding the first referendum all five countries conducted in 1991 to approve sovereignty as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Turkmenistan held the first referendum, in January 1994. The purpose was to approve a measure that extended President Saparmurat Niyazov's term in office until 2002. Niyazov won the 1992 presidential election. It would be the only election he ever ran in. In 1999 Niyazov was named leader for life and he stayed in office until he died in December 2006.

His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is currently working on constitutional amendments that would strike the maximum age for being president (70 years old). There is no presidential term limit in Turkmenistan's constitution. It is unclear if the impending constitutional amendments will be put to a referendum or simply approved by the compliant government.

After Turkmenistan's referendum, Uzbekistan conducted a referendum in March 1995 that prolonged President Islam Karimov's term in office until 2000. Next up -- Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbaev had dissolved parliament in March 1995. In late April 1995, Kazakhstan conducted a referendum to prolong Nazarbaev's term in office until the end of 2000 (though he called a snap election for early 1999). A subsequent referendum in Kazakhstan in August 1995 removed some of parliament's powers and gave more power to the presidency.

Kyrgyzstan conducted the first of its referendums in January 1994. The purpose was to bolster President Askar Akaev, who was facing fierce resistance from the country's parliament. The simple question people voted on was "Do you confirm that the president of Kyrgyzstan who was democratically elected on October 12, 1991, for five years is the president of the Kyrgyz Republic with the right to act as head of state during his term in office?"

A referendum in October that same year made the unicameral parliament into a bicameral body and transferred some of parliament's powers to the executive branch. Referendums in February 1996, October 1998, and February 2003 served to further strengthen the office of the presidency and in the process so changed the constitution that it was decided Akaev's first two terms in office under the "old" constitution did not count and he was free to run for two more terms.

Tajikistan took this same path. President Rahmon was selected at a very small event in northern Tajikistan in November 1992 to be speaker of parliament. The country was falling into civil war at the time and, after it had gone through several presidents in just a few months, the office of the presidency had been abolished. Speaker of parliament was therefore the highest post in Tajikistan.

Rahmon was elected president on November 6, 1994. There were two votes that day -- one the presidential election, the other to approve a new constitution that reinstated the office of president.

I've always wondered what would have happened if Rahmon won the election but the constitution was rejected and there was no office of president. Quite impossible of course, but it pointed to the orchestration of elections to come.

Tajikistan's next referendum was in September 1999 and it was probably the most important referendum Tajikistan ever held. That one approved the legalization of religious political parties. It was necessary because the peace deal that ended Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war stipulated that members of the opposition, the bulk of whom were from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, would receive places in government.

That referendum also approved lengthening the presidential term in office from five to seven years and later, on that basis, President Rahmon did the same thing Kyrgyz President Akaev did -- declare that the first two presidential elections did not count as part of the two-term limit.

The last referendum in Tajikistan took place in June 2003 and changed a clause written into the constitution in 1999 that specified a one-term limit for the president, transforming that to a two-term limit. And on May 22 term limits for the "Leader of the Nation" (Rahmon) will be removed entirely. The minimum age of eligibility to be elected president will also drop from 35 to 30, which many interpret as a means for Rahmon to see his son Rustam Emomali, currently 29, become the next president.

Uzbekistan conducted one more referendum in 2002 to prolong Karimov's term and change the length of a presidential term from five years to seven, as well as introducing a bicameral parliament.

Karimov was, and technically still is, constitutionally bound to two terms in office. But when his second term expired in 2007 he simply ran again and Uzbek officials did not raise any objections. Uzbek officials remained quiet when Karimov was again reelected in 2015.

Kyrgyzstan's referendum in June 2010 is the sole exception to the trend established by these previous referendums. That referendum approved a new constitution that transformed Kyrgyzstan from a presidential system of government to a parliamentary system. It also reversed some of the changes made in Kyrgyzstan's referendum of October 2007, which had further concentrated power in the hands of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

However, Tajikistan is taking the image of the Central Asian referendum back to its more traditional use on May 22.

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.