Polls closed in ex-Soviet Tajikistan on Sunday in a referendum on constitutional changes almost certain to strengthen the hold of long-time President Emomali Rahmon and his family over the Central Asian state.

The country's electoral commission, which declared the vote valid, said some 88.3 percent of the roughly 4.3 million eligible voters had cast ballots by 1300 GMT.

The 63-year-old leader 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.

Many residents of the Tajik capital appeared enthusiastic in their support for Rahmon, who led the country out of a five-year civil war that began in 1992, less than a year after independence.

"Rahmon brought us peace, he ended the war, and he should rule the country for as long as he has the strength to," 53-year-old voter Nazir Saidzoda told AFP news agency.

Other voters were more pessimistic about their leader's ability to pull the country of eight million out of economic difficulty.

"Everything that is being done is for [the regime] to hold on to power for as long as possible," 37-year-old Marifat Rakhimi said.

"We are waiting for a better economy and the disappearance of corruption." Rakhimi added.


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The amendment to lift the limit on his time in office applies only to Rahmon, 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.

Other amendments include lowering the minimum age required to be elected president from 35 to 30 and a ban on the formation of parties based on religion.

The age-limit change could position Rahmon'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.

Source: Agencies