ALMATY (Reuters) - President Imomali Rakhmon seems set to strengthen his power by referendum on Sunday as Tajikistan, on the front line against militancy and crime from neighboring Afghanistan, sinks deeper into an economic crisis and simmering discontent.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of Tajiks working in recession-hit Russia have been forced to return home, either because they lost their jobs or because their wages were no longer sufficient following the Russian ruble’s devaluation.
There have been no major public protests in the authoritarian state, but political tensions are on the rise. In September, general and former opposition fighter was killed in a gunfight with government forces after a failed attempt to seize power from Rakhmon.
Sunday’s referendum seeks the public vote on 41 constitutional amendments drafted by a loyal government. Head of state since 1992 and president since 1994, Rakhmon wants to scrap the limit on presidential terms to prevent his current term ending in 2020 from being his last one.
The proposals would also lower the minimum age for presidential candidates, allowing Rakhmon’s elder son Rustam, who runs the state financial control agency, to run for office if he chooses to do so.
In addition, Rakhmon, 63, wants a constitutional ban on religious parties to shore up a court shutdown of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) last year. Some of its leaders face life in jail on charges of plotting a coup.
IRPT was a successor of the Islamist wing of an opposition bloc which fought Rakhmon’s government in a bloody civil war in the 1990s. The crackdown on the party marked a decisive break from the power-sharing agreement which ended the war.
The Central Election Commission said on Sunday that 88 percent of registered voters had already cast their ballots by 1800 local time, two hours before polling station closed. In the capital Dushanbe, many stayed at polling stations after voting, enticed by live music performances.
The commission plans to announce the preliminary results of the vote on Monday. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which routinely monitors elections in the region, did not send its observers to assess the referendum.
Mostly Muslim Tajikistan is the poorest former Soviet republic. Russia maintains a base there in support of the government and dominates a force guarding the 1,300 Km (830 mile) long border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers. Rakhmon loyalists dominated the last vote in March 2015 while the Islamists failed to clear a five-percent threshold needed to win seats for a party.
The peace in the 1990s civil war was hard won and any signs it could unravel would be viewed with deep concern in Moscow.
There have been no notable public protests against Rakhmon whose official title is “Founder of Peace and Stability, Leader of the Nation”. But the government of oil exporter Kazakhstan, the richest country in the region, has faced a wave of rallies amid public discontent over worsening living standards.
Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Ros Russell