Uzbekistan President wins nationwide referendum to rewrite Constitution 

The measures, which are expected to grant more freedoms to the people, will also help President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stay in power till 2040

May 01, 2023 07:00 pm | Updated May 02, 2023 08:06 am IST - Tashkent

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev greets members of an election commission at a polling station during a referendum in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on April 30, 2023.

Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev greets members of an election commission at a polling station during a referendum in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on April 30, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

A vast majority of Uzbekistan’s voters voted “Yes” to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s bid to rewrite the country’s Constitution in Sunday’s referendum that promised more freedoms to the people of the former Soviet republic and could also see the President extending his rule beyond his current two-term limit.

According to the preliminary results announced by the Election Commission on Monday, 90.21% of voters supported the changes, while 9.35% voted ‘No’. The turnout was 84.54%.

As per the country’s referendum law, at least 50% of the voters should cast their ballots for a referendum to be considered valid. At 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Election Commission declared that the referendum was valid as voters turned out in large numbers across the country to “choose their future”.

At polling station 517 in the Tashkent Financial Institute, voters of different age groups were seen in small queues at 3 p.m. on Sunday, exercising their rights. The booth had over 2,000 registered voters, whose names were published on a notice board.

Norboyev Uktam, the chief of the polling station, said all arrangements were made to make the voting transparent and free.

“The votes of this booth will be counted here by the officials and then sent to the Central Commision, which will do the final tallying,” Mr. Uktam said, explaining the process.

On the day of the referendum, different state agencies held back-to-back briefings at the Election Commission press office in Tashkent, detailing the steps taken to ensure a free and fair vote.

But the results were along expected lines as there was no campaign against the proposals made by the President. Uzbekistan has five recognised political parties, including President Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party. All of them were for reforms. In March, a group of free press advocates issued a statement, noting that critical voices on the social media and in the traditional media are under increasing government pressure.

International election observers also raised doubts on the fairness of the referendum process.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in a briefing in Tashkent on Monday that the voting was not truly representative.

“Uzbekistan’s constitutional referendum was technically well prepared and widely promoted as a move to enhance various rights and freedoms, but it took place in an environment that fell short of genuine political pluralism and competition,” the OSCE said.

President Mirziyoyev’s narrative is that the new Constitution gives emphasis on human rights, freedoms, gender equality, economic growth and prosperity. The new charter would also extend the presidential term to seven years, with a two-term limit.

Mr. Mirziyoyev, a former protege of Soviet-era strongman Islam Karimov, who stayed in power for 25 years until his death in 2016, is currently serving his second term which would expire in 2026. The new Constitution would reset his terms so that he can contest again for two more terms (14 years in total) — which means he could theoretically stay in power until 2040.

But many Uzbeks, especially the women and the youth, see the promised changes as a welcome move in a fast-changing country rather than worrying about the President extending his rule.

“What I like about this referendum is that it’s giving more power to women. Now any man who practices physical abuse can be prosecuted and even be sentenced for up to 12 years,” said Dilfuza Oilmava, who teaches translation studies at Bukhara State University. “This is a big move. This is the first time there’s so much talk about women’s rights. This will eventually strengthen democracy in Uzbekistan,” she added.

The new Constitution also promises more media freedoms. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan continued the Soviet-era censorship, but Mr. Mirziyoyev has relaxed such controls, though the media is still wary of not crossing the threshold and angering the government.

“I was a journalist in the early 1990s. I have seen what censorship is and how it works. That scene is changing in Uzbekistan. And the new Constitution is promising more freedoms,” said Beruniy Alimov, director, New Media Education Center, a Tashkent-based NGO.

“Overall, I am positive about the development, but as a practising journalist, I remain sceptical. Self-censorship by media owners and editors is still prevalent here. Now, a better code is being promised. But we need to see how it’s going to be implemented,” Mr. Alimov said.

The writer is in Uzbekistan at an invitation from the government

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