Constitutional changes, if passed as expected, will allow President Rahmon to rule the central Asian state for life.
Tajikistan – the poorest ex-Soviet nation with a long and porous border with Afghanistan – announced on Monday the results of a constitutional referendum that makes the heavy-handed rule of President Emomali Rakhmon virtually unlimited, paves the way for his son’s presidency, and outlaws “faith-based” parties.
The Central Election Committee said 94.5 percent of eligible voters approved 41 constitutional amendments at Sunday’s vote with a 92 percent turnout. The referendum ballots to approve the amendments only allowed a “yes” or “no” option, without a chance to vote on each amendment separately.
The referendum’s outcomes may alienate moderate Tajik Islamists and escalate the situation in Central Asia, as the strategically located region faces a rising threat from Afghanistan’s Taliban and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Rakhmon, a former collective farm chairman and minor communist official, came to power in 1992 amid a bloody civil war that claimed some 20,000 lives and ended three years later. He used Russian military and political backing to strike a peace deal with the Islamic opposition and powerful regional clans.
Initially, Rakhmon gave his former opponents posts in his government and let them participate in the privatisation of Soviet-era factories and real estate.
But over the past decade he purged many of them, forcing them to leave Tajikistan, orchestrating trials that sentenced them to jail, and ordering massive security operations that killed dozens of people, his critics and independent online Tajik media claimed.
One of the amendments approved at Sunday’s vote prohibits “faith-based” parties – effectively outlawing the Party of Islamic Renaissance, one of Rakhmon’s civil war-era adversaries. Sixteen of the party’s leaders are now standing trial for their alleged attempt to stage a coup, five of them face life in prison.
Analysts warn the move will radicalise the party’s supporters.
“After the party was disbanded and discredited, the radicalisation of many of its members is rather predictable,” Parvina Khamidova, a US-based Tajik publicist told Al Jazeera.
“The radicalisation process in the republic has begun a long time ago but may grow much stronger now because the Renaissance Party attracted the moderate part” of believers, she said.
Two more of the adopted amendments allow Rakhmon to run for president indefinitely and lower the age limit for presidential hopefuls to 30, permitting his 29-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, to take part in the 2020 presidential election.
Emomali now heads the national anti-corruption agency, while Rakhmon’s other son and seven daughters hold top government jobs or own huge businesses.
“The referendum shapes Tajikistan’s political system in full accordance with the feudal system of the mid-19th century, when power was not just unlimited but also hereditary,” Moscow-based expert on Central Asia Daniil Kislov told Al Jazeera.
Most of what is now Tajikistan was part of the Bukhara Emirate that was conquered by Czarist Russia in the late 19th century. Although most Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, their language is closely related to Farsi, and Rakhmon never tires of emphasising the “Aryan”, or Iranian, roots of Tajik culture and statehood.
The 63-year-old leader has also developed an eccentric personality cult.
Tajik media call him “His Excellency” and “The National Leader”. Lawmakers and schoolchildren dedicate poems to him and compare him to the sun and ancient Persian shahs. A law adopted in December makes Rakhmon immune to criminal prosecution.
The mountainous nation of nine million is now the world’s most remittance-dependent nation with as much as half of its GDP formed by cash transfers from millions of Tajik men who mostly work in Russia, despite xenophobia and strict immigration policies, according to the World Bank.
Their remittances dropped sharply last year because of Russia’s economic meltdown, while some of the stranded Tajiks became easy prey to recruiters from ISIL and other armed groups fighting in Syria. Hundreds of Tajiks are believed to have joined them.
Tajikistan’s 1,400-km-long border with Afghanistan is more exposed as the US-led NATO alliance is pulling out of the ravaged nation. Meanwhile, the incessant flow of Afghan opiates further weakens and corrupts the Tajik economy.
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