With a 93 percent yes vote, the electorate in Tajikistan last Sunday approved a package of constitutional amendments that may have far reaching conseqences including the incumbent president, Emomali Rahmonov, ruling the country for another 17 years, and power being further concentrated in the presidency.
The referendum was initiated by the Tajik parliament and, after the approval vote, changes can be made to the preamble and 54 articles of the constitution, which was adopted in 1994 and amended in 1999. The official explanation for the exercise was that, after a decade, provisions in the supreme law needed modifying to bring it up to contemporary standards.
Tajiks voted in favour of a number of changes to the constitution, but the most controversial provision is a change to article 65, which would authorise the president to serve two seven-year terms instead of the current single term. This would allow Rahmonov to run for two more terms after his current period in power expires in 2006.
Some political parties are unhappy with the change. "When we made peace in 1997, one of the major agreements was that a president can remain in office for a single seven-year term," Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT), told IRIN in the capital, Dushanbe.
The DPT and other opposition factions in the United Tajik Opposition signed a peace agreement with Rahmonov's government in 1997 to end the five-year long civil war, and are sharing power now. "We have to wait and see what happens in the elections after three years," he said.
Other significant changes include ending the free health care and higher education systems inherited from the Soviet period. These services would be charged for in future. Observers say these measures will have a significant negative impact in a country as poor as Tajikistan.
Additional changes involve prohibiting speech deemed to incite "enmity or conflict along social, racial, ethnic, religious, or language lines".
However, some observers call into question the whole exercise, saying that it was nugatory. "It was only for the government's sake and had nothing to do with the people," Scott Kearin, the resident representative of the US NGO, National Democratic Institute, told IRIN.
He added that some important matters, such as giving people a chance to elect their local representatives, were totally ignored. At present the central government in Dushanbe appoints all hukumat, or local government, representatives. "This referendum is not a positive step towards democratic development," Kearin said.
According to the Tajik Central Election Committee (CEC), 96 percent of the nearly three million-strong electorate exercised their right to vote. Official figures say 2,261,250, or 93 percent, of the total ballots favoured the changes, and only 175,246, or nearly seven percent, opposed them. "This was the result of a well worked out information campaign by the parliamentary deputies," the chairman of the CEC, Mirzoali Boltuyev, told IRIN.
But experts and political observers do not share such views. "It was not prepared and conducted in as democratic manner as it could have been," Vladimir Sotirov, the UN secretary-general's representative and head of the UN Office of Peace Building in Tajikistan, told IRIN. He added that people were only given a chance to accept or reject a whole package of important amendments, and that more public education and debate should have been made available before the poll.
"The process is questionable and it sets a poor precedent for the political elite who are supposed to represent the people, but instead push through their own ideas," Kathleen Samuel, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group told IRIN.
She added that the Tajik referendum was similar to other polls in the region. The referendum device has also been used by other authoritarian governments in Central Asia to seek legitimacy and bypass fledgling legislatures. In many cases, the post-Soviet leaders in the region have used uncontested popular votes to perpetuate their rule, notably in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Although the voting in the referendum remained peaceful, the event was not officially monitored by independent international observers. Both the UN and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to monitor the vote as they had received the official invitations too late, leaving hardly any time for preparations, they said.
Salla Kayhko, an OSCE political and media officer, told IRIN that the turnout had been exceptionally high, but the poll flawed by a lack of knowledge about exactly what was being voted for. "There was a lack of prior consultation with the civil society," she said.
With parliamentary elections planned for 2005, to be followed by presidential elections in 2006, experts believe the referendum result will have lasting consequences for the peace process, democracy and pluralism in Tajikistan.
Kearin asserted that in the fragile political atmosphere in postwar Tajikistan, such events could only serve to limit opportunities for fair political competition. "The future depends on the choices of the government of Tajikistan. Ultimately, they have to choose between healthy political evolution and authoritarianism," he said.
Tajik government officials remained upbeat about the future following the weekend poll. "This referendum will ultimately add to political stability, because we are working for our population's welfare," the ECE's Boltuyev said.