People in Uzbekistan are voting on a constitutional referendum that could allow President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to extend his rule by 14 years.
If Sunday’s referendum passes, presidential terms would be lengthened from five to seven years. The change would allow the 65-year-old Mirziyoyev to serve two more terms and extend his time in power until 2040.
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Authorities in the most populous former Soviet republic in Central Asia said an overhaul of the constitution would improve governance and quality of life in the majority-Muslim country of 35 million people. The government also said the referendum would usher in human rights reforms.
Polling stations opened at 8am (03:00 GMT), according to the Uzbek Election Commission. They will close at 8pm (15:00 GMT).
Leading up to the vote, media was heavily controlled in a country where rights have long been heavily restricted. Two journalists working for Uzbek state media told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency on the condition of anonymity that they had been “ordered to cover Uzbekistan, the referendum and the president in a positive way”.
Both said censorship had grown during the referendum campaign.
The government has gone to some lengths to give the vote a veneer of legitimacy, enrolling local celebrities at large rallies and concerts to praise both the proposals and the president.
Billboards around the capital, Tashkent, the biggest city in Central Asia, carry imaginary message chats between voters.
“Dad, shall we go to the park?” reads the first message. “No, we have to vote first,” comes the reply.
Agay Danilov, an 18-year-old student, told AFP the referendum was “a good idea”.
“We can choose the future of our country,” Danilov said.
‘A new Uzbekistan’?
Since coming to power in 2016 in the wake of the death of his hardline predecessor Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev has spearheaded a series of reforms in Uzbekistan, including a clampdown on forced labour in the cotton fields.
But activists said rights abuses persist and authorities have shown no sign of allowing a political opposition to emerge.
In 2022, at least 21 people were killed during demonstrations in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Rights activists accused the authorities of using lethal force against the protesters.
Olivier Ferrando, a researcher at the Catholic University of Lyon in France, said the referendum was a “flagship measure” for Mirziyoyev in his attempt at “emancipation” from the legacy of his predecessor.
Karimov died in 2016 after a quarter-century of brutal rule. Mirziyoyev was his loyal prime minister for 13 years but now presents himself as a much more progressive figure.
“Many analysts see, understandably, an effort by Mirziyoyev to stay in power, but it would be a shame to dismiss this text as just an authoritarian turn,” Ferrando told AFP, referring to the amendments.
Among the proposals are a ban on capital punishment and the protection of human rights for what Mirziyoyev calls a “new Uzbekistan”.
“We will have to see, of course, if this constitutional reform, one of whose aims is to give guarantees to the international community of democratic development in the new Uzbekistan, will be able to go beyond a simple cosmetic effect and be fully implemented in people’s daily lives,” Ferrando said.
Uzbekistan’s population is emerging from a particularly harsh winter marked by fuel shortages and is faced with enduring poverty and endemic corruption.
Despite some economic progress and social improvements, such as the criminalisation of domestic violence, the government brooks no dissent.
During July’s unrest, demonstrations against a constitutional amendment in Karakalpakstan, which would have reduced the autonomy of the vast territory, were put down in a bloody crackdown. Dozens of people were jailed.
The amendment has since been withdrawn.