Tajikistan held a referendum Sunday on changing the Constitution to allow its authoritarian president to run for office indefinitely, effectively allowing him to rule for life. The 63-year-old Emomali Rakhmon has ruled the former Soviet republic in Central Asia since 1992. During those 24 years, he has crushed or cowed all opposition to his rule and the referendum is expected to pass easily. One of the constitutional changes considered in the vote would lower the minimum age for presidents from 35 to 30 years. This would allow Rakhmon’s son, now 29, to run in the next presidential election in 2020. Reported turnout was high. Election officials said that 88 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 6 p.m. local time ( 1300 GMT ), two hours before polls closed. The referendum has been organized and held with only cursory international scrutiny. No election in Tajikistan has ever been deemed free and fair by the most thorough monitoring organization. In the months preceding the referendum, authorities in Tajikistan have systemically dismantled the few remaining remnants of dissent to Rakhmon’s rule.
The only question to ask about Tajikistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections is whether the authorities will allow any opposition parties to win seats in the rubber-stamp body. A victory for the president’s party is guaranteed. But, just in case, authorities are making it almost impossible for anyone else to run. Eight parties are fielding 288 candidates to contest 63 seats in parliament’s lower house on March 1. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by impartial observers. During the previous election, in 2010, President Emomali Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 55 of the 63 seats. The only opposition party to enter parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), won just two seats. The other seats went to members of the loyal opposition—parties that bestow on Tajikistan the trappings of democracy, but kowtow to the president.
Tajikistan’s president has won a fourth term in an election that has been criticized by Western observers and extends his more than 20-year rule in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation. The Central Election Commission said Thursday that Emomali Rakhmon won 83.6 percent of the vote, but monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, criticized the previous day’s vote. They say that state media had been dominated by coverage of Rakhmon’s campaign and that registration requirements were designed to limit competition. “While quiet and peaceful, this was an election without a real choice,” Gerdana Comic, Special Coordinator for the OSCE mission, said in a news conference in Dushanbe. The Tajik government long has drawn criticism for its crackdown on dissent and its tight grip on the media.