DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Tajikistan held a referendum Sunday on changing the Constitution to allow its authoritarian president to run for office indefinitely, effectively allowing him to rule for life.
The 63-year-old Emomali Rakhmon has ruled the former Soviet republic in Central Asia since 1992. During those 24 years, he has crushed or cowed all opposition to his rule and the referendum is expected to pass easily.
One of the constitutional changes considered in the vote would lower the minimum age for presidents from 35 to 30 years. This would allow Rakhmon's son, now 29, to run in the next presidential election in 2020.
Reported turnout was high. Election officials said that 88 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 6 p.m. local time (1300 GMT), two hours before polls closed.
The referendum has been organized and held with only cursory international scrutiny. No election in Tajikistan has ever been deemed free and fair by the most thorough monitoring organization.
In the months preceding the referendum, authorities in Tajikistan have systemically dismantled the few remaining remnants of dissent to Rakhmon's rule.
The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, the only opposition party with any real following, was declared a terrorist organization following an alleged coup attempt in September. Little is known of the purported plot to overthrow the government, including whether it actually took place.
More than a dozen of the party's leaders were charged with involvement in the coup attempt and have been tried behind closed doors in a trial that has drawn broad international criticism.
Few in Tajikistan dare to speak openly in opposition to Rakhmon for fear of repercussions. That climate has fostered much apathy and indifference even toward the government's political initiatives.
Voters queried at polling stations on Sunday either repeated talking points regularly aired on state television or displayed uncertainty about what they had cast their ballot for.
"I didn't read anything. Somebody just told me to write 'yes,' so I just did it and left," said college student Shamsiddin Burhonov.
Like many others pressed on whether he knew what changes to the Constitution were being approved, Burhonov struggled to answer.
In fact, voters were being asked to approve a total of 41 amendments, although the ballot paper included none of the details.
One amendment will introduce a ban on religious-based parties, which is apparently a measure intended to ensure the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan is unable to resurface under a different guise.