February 10, 2016 / 7:43 AM / 4 years ago

Tajiks to vote in 'president-for-life' referendum

DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan will hold a referendum in May on constitutional changes that would tighten veteran leader Imomali Rakhmon’s grip on power, effectively giving him unlimited presidential terms and extending a ban on the main opposition party.

The former Soviet republic’s parliament, dominated by Rakhmon’s allies, announced the vote on Wednesday after it was approved by the constitutional court.

Previous constitutional changes have allowed Rakhmon to successfully run for president four times, most recently in 2013, when he was re-elected for a seven-year term.

Without the new proposal, to grant him the right to stand as often as he wishes, he would be unable to run again in 2020.

In the referendum, scheduled for May 22, Tajiks will have a single vote on a package of amendments that also includes cutting the minimum age for presidential candidates to 30 from 35. Rakhmon’s older son, Rustam Imomali, will be 33 when his father’s current term ends.

A third amendment will ask them to ban political parties from being established based on religious platforms. That would prevent the main opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, from reforming after being outlawed last year.

There seems little doubt that the proposed changes will pass.

Since Rakhmon took power in 1994, Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair, with Western observers citing frequent ballot-box stuffing, and authorities have cracked down harder on dissent as the country’s economy has stuttered.

They accused the Islamist party of being linked to a failed coup last September led by a general, Abdukhalim Nazarzoda, who was killed along with 37 of his supporters in clashes with government forces.

Tajikistan is facing significant economic headwinds from recession in Russia, where hundreds of thousands of Tajiks work and support their families by sending back remittances, and from declining prices for aluminium and cotton, its main commodity exports.

Reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by John Stonestreet

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