Uzbeks vote on allowing president to extend time in power
TASHKENT (Reuters) -Uzbekistan votes on constitutional amendments on Sunday that promise its citizens greater social protections in exchange for resetting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's term count to zero, which could allow him to run for two more seven-year terms.
Mirziyoyev, 65, has been praised at home and abroad as a liberal reformer for abandoning the previous leadership's isolationist policies and police state approach.
And while Tashkent's Western partners are unlikely to approve of the attempt to extend presidential powers, Uzbekistan risks little given the West is seeking support from all ex-Soviet nations 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. His current term ends in 2026.
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.
Mirziyoyev cast his ballot at one of the polling stations in Tashkent, stopping to greet other voters on his way in and out.
"Every person should have a belief in tomorrow in their heart and support reforms. We are doing our best to ensure that, and, God willing, your trust in reforms will be remain strong," he said.
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 Central Election Commission declared the referendum valid after turnout surpassed 50%; it reached 81.4% by 1700 local time. Preliminary vote results are expected on Monday.
(Reporting by Mukhammadsharif MamatkulovWriting by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Barbara Lewis and Lincoln Feast.)