On Sunday, Uzbekistan will vote on constitutional revisions that offer stronger social safeguards in exchange for resetting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s term count to zero, allowing him to continue in office until 2040.
Mirziyoyev, 65, has been hailed as a liberal reformer both at home and internationally for rejecting the previous leadership’s isolationist policies and police state mentality.
While Tashkent’s Western allies are unlikely to support the attempt to expand presidential powers, Uzbekistan faces little risk given that the West is seeking support from all ex-Soviet countries in its efforts to isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine.
Although the current and the proposed new version of the constitution limit successive presidential terms to two, officials have said that if the revised constitution is adopted, Mirziyoyev’s term count would be reset to zero.
The reform also extends the presidential term to seven years from five, which could in theory allow Mirziyoyev to remain in charge of the country of 35 million people until 2040.
At the same time, the package of amendments proclaims Uzbekistan a “social state” with increased welfare obligations and allows non-farming land ownership.
It also abolishes the death penalty and establishes greater personal legal protection, for instance to a person’s rights when they are detained by police, and the concept of habeas corpus, or protection against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment.
“Our lives have been improving, and under this president it will continue, I hope,” said 62-year-old voter Nazira who declined to give her last name. “I don’t mind and approve (presidential) terms being extended. I thank the president for what he is doing for us.”
Some Uzbek commentators have called for more democratic principles to be included in the bill, and in stronger wording, but the general idea of reform – and extending presidential powers in particular – has met no opposition.
“What I see is that the new changes will boost our rights and the openness (of the state),” said another voter, Abdurashid Kadirov, 65.
Patriotic music was played at many polling stations on Sunday, some decorated with flowers and some handing out baseball caps and T-shirts with the referendum logo to first-time voters.
The referendum will be declared valid if over a half of Uzbekistan’s 19.7 million voters participate. Preliminary vote results are expected on Monday.