People in Tajikistan have taken to the polls in a crucial referendum to vote on a set of amendments to the constitution that is expected to strengthen the president’s powers.
The polls opened at 0100 GMT in the capital Dushanbe on Sunday and large lines of voters formed to decide on a single question on the ballot paper that read “Do you support the amendments and additions to the constitution of the country?”
The Tajiks are voting for or against 41 proposed amendments, the key one of which could allow incumbent President Emomali Rahmon to run for an unlimited number of terms and pave the way for his son to become the future leader.
More than 3,200 polling stations are open across the country and a number of additional stations are also operating in major cities in Russia, where over a million Tajiks work or live.
The 63-year-old Rahmon, branded as “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” by the parliament in December 2015, began leading the country in 1992 shortly after Tajikistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.
Critics, however, say Rahmon has increasingly been disregarding religious freedoms, civil society and political pluralism in recent years. They believe the proposed constitutional changes will deteriorate the condition as one of the key amendments demands a ban on religion-based parties.
This amendment could also end in removal of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which the government accuses of involvement in terrorism. The party, however, was widely viewed as moderate before Dushanbe branded it a terrorist group last year.
The amendments, drafted by a loyal parliament, would also lower the eligibility age for presidential hopefuls from 35 to 30, a proposal that, observers say, could lead to an early succession for his older son, Rustam Emomali, at the end of the president’s current term in 2010.
Rahmon, currently serving his fourth term in office, has substantial public support and many experts expect the long-time leader to emerge victorious in the May 22 vote.