Voters in Tajikistan have overwhelmingly endorsed changes to the Central Asian country’s constitution allowing President Emomali Rakhmon to run for an unlimited number of terms, the elections commission said Monday.
In a statement, the Central Election Commission (CEC) said that 94.5 percent of votes cast in Sunday’s referendum had backed the 40 constitutional changes, while only 3.3 percent were against.
Turnout stood in the former Soviet state stood at 92 percent, or just over four million people, the CEC said.
As well as lifting the term limit for Rakhmon, the amendments also lower the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, and ban the formation of religion-based parties.
The 63-year-old autocrat has ruled Tajikistan for nearly a quarter of a century, demonstrating what critics say is an increased disregard for religious freedoms, civil society and political pluralism in recent years.
But residents voting on Sunday in the near million-strong Tajik capital of Dushanbe appeared enthusiastic in their support for Rakhmon, who led the country out of a five-year civil war that began in 1992, less than a year after independence.
“Rakhmon brought us peace, he ended the war, and he should rule the country for as long as he has the strength to,” voter Nazir Saidzoda, 53, told AFP on Sunday.
The term limit amendment applies only to Rakhmon, owing to the “Leader of the Nation” status parliament voted to grant him last year, which also affords him and his family permanent immunity from criminal prosecution.
The lowering of the age limit for presidential candidates could position Rakhmon’s 28-year-old son Rustam for an early succession, while restrictions on political parties come amid the ongoing trial of key members of a banned Islamic party.
The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) had been widely viewed as moderate before the government branded it a terrorist group last year, stripping away the most significant formal opposition to the Rakhmon regime.
In the months before the referendum, authorities pushed through a number of initiatives glorifying Rakhmon’s rule, which is regularly lambasted by rights organizations as corrupt and repressive.
Earlier in May, the autocrat signed off on a law creating a holiday in his honor proposed by parliamentarians in the two-chamber legislature which is completely loyal to his administration.
In February, the republic’s youth affairs committee launched a contest for the best essays by schoolchildren in praise of the strongman’s “heroic” rule.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Saturday said the Tajik government had been “blocking”, “intimidating” and “threatening” independent media outlets in the build-up to the referendum.
“Depriving the population of freely-reported news and information before such a crucial political event constitutes an all-out denial of democracy,” Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said in a statement.
Sunday’s referendum was the third on constitutional changes in Tajikistan’s history.
Referendums in 1999 and 2003 were also centered on extending Rakhmon’s stay in power.
Rakhmon secured a seven-year term in Tajikistan in a presidential election in 2013 with over 80 percent of the vote.