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Why Does Tajikistan Need A Referendum?

If a new constitutional referendum in Tajikistan is approved, it could pave the way for President Emomali Rahmon (left) to pass on the reins of power to his son Rustam (right).
If a new constitutional referendum in Tajikistan is approved, it could pave the way for President Emomali Rahmon (left) to pass on the reins of power to his son Rustam (right).

Tajikistan is holding a national referendum on May 22 on changes to the constitution. There are 41 proposed amendments presented as a package. Voters can either vote "yes" or "no" to the package. It is not possible to vote on individual amendments.

Among the amendments, there are three significant changes. One would lift presidential term limits; another lowers the eligible age to run for president; and a third outlaws the creation of faith-based political parties.

It is hardly an unprecedented step in Central Asia, but the timing is interesting.

To take a closer look at what is at stake in the May 22 referendum, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, one of our panel-discussion podcasts.

Moderating the panel was Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir. Joining the discussion was Dr. Helene Thibault, professor at the Center for International Studies at Montreal University and author of many articles about Central Asia, and Tajikistan in particular. In the studio in Prague, Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, participated. And since Mr. Safarov does more TV than radio lately, I sat in to see if he still does radio -- and since I was there I tossed in a few remarks.

Safarov started by naming the most significant changes in the package of amendments. "The first would give [Tajik President Emomali] Rahmon a lifetime presidency." Safarov also listed lowering the eligibility age to become president from 35 to 30 and commented that this meant Rahmon's son Rustam Emomali could run for president in the next election. "A third amendment is about political parties. If this amendment will be approved, Tajikistan will ban religious parties," he said.

Emomali Rahmon was first elected president in November 1994.* He was elected again in 1999, but an amendment to the constitution changed the term length from five to seven years and Rahmon was able to be elected again in 2006 and 2013. There is a two-term limit for Tajik presidents, so under the current constitution Rahmon should step down in 2020.**

Lowering the age of eligibility to be president might be the most interesting of the proposed changes. It has led to much speculation that this opens the path for Rustam Emomali, aged 29, to become president in 2020. At the same time, few believe Rahmon will leave office in 2020.

'Leader Of The Nation'

The panel noted that, even if Rahmon stepped down, a law passed in late 2015 named the incumbent president "Leader of the Nation." Thibault pointed out, "It gives Rahmon the right to oversee the activities of the government even after he retires, and also gives him lifelong immunity from judicial and criminal prosecutions for him and his family."

So Rahmon, even in retirement, would effectively be leading the country no matter who is president.

The third major change is the banning of faith-based political parties. The other Central Asian states already have this prohibition. But in Tajikistan, part of the 1997 peace accord called for the 1992-97 civil-war opposition to receive places in government. That included the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). A referendum in 1999 legalized faith-based parties to accommodate the terms of the peace deal.

The IRPT's participation in government dwindled over the years, and in the March 2015 parliamentary elections the party lost its last seats in parliament and all its roles in government. A few months later the party lost its registration, then was banned, and shortly thereafter declared an extremist organization. Many of its leaders fled Tajikistan, some of those who stayed are now on trial facing serious charges.

That leaves very few genuine opposition figures in Tajikistan who can pursue their activities legally.

Part of the reason for the crackdown on the opposition is probably the deteriorating economic situation in Tajikistan. Tajikistan has been donor-dependent throughout its nearly 25-year history. A lack of employment opportunities has led more than 10 percent of the population to seek work elsewhere, usually in Russia. A ripple effect of Russia's recent economic woes is that the money Tajikistan's migrant laborers in Russia send home has been cut in half.

Thibault said that is probably a large part of the reason for conducting this referendum now. "I would say again that it's a consolidation of rule at a moment where there's an economic crisis."

Safarov said this referendum stands apart from earlier referendums in Tajikistan in that authorities are more active in getting the word out to the public. "There are a lot of reports, and every day you can see reports on Tajik TV about these amendments, and they are calling people to vote in the referendum. And there are a lot of demonstrations that are organized by local officials," Safarov said.

However, that does not mean voters understand all of what they are voting on.

Safarov recalled, "Recently our correspondent was in [the northern] Soghd region, there were about 10,000 young people gathering and supporting the constitutional amendments ,and he asked one of them, 'Why are you here?' and he said, 'We support the referendum, we are going to vote.'" Safarov said the Ozodi correspondent "asked, 'Do you know what amendments are there?' and he said, 'I don't know,' and he turned to ask his teacher and he [the teacher] said, 'I also don't know anything about the amendments.'"

Despite the lack of knowledge, the outcome is certain. "I have no doubt that it will be positive outcome in terms of approving the new constitutional amendments," Thibault said.

What comes afterward was among the topics discussed during the Majlis podcast. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: The Tajik Referendum
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*He was head of state since November 1992, but his official position was speaker of parliament

**As interpreted by Tajik authorities, the change of term length meant the two five-year terms Rahmon was elected to did not count under the amended constitution.

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    Bruce Pannier

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