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Uzbekistan’s president stays in power while passing liberal reforms

“This constitution is yours! Red banners are posted on billboards and on buses near Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. As Uzbekistan prepares to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms on April 30, the government is mounting such enthusiasm that even children In a video that has sparked mockery on social media, a nursery school teacher leads a group of children in chants in support of constitutional reform.

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Shavkat Mirziyoyev, president of the Central Asian nation of 35 million people, has made the proposed reforms the latest item in a reform agenda he has pursued since taking power in 2016, after his authoritarian predecessor Islam Khalid Islam Karimov dies. Mirziyoyev freed political prisoners, loosened control over the media, pushed through market reforms and ended forced labor on Uzbekistan’s vast cotton fields.

The new constitution, which will rewrite 65 percent of the existing constitution, will foster “a modern democracy that prioritizes the individual rights of everyone,” said Jakhongir Shirinov, chairman of the parliamentary committee overseeing the reforms. “Once the state was supreme, now the citizens are supreme.”

The draft constitution includes guarantees for gender equality. These mark a sea change in patriarchal Uzbekistan, which recently passed a law criminalizing domestic violence. The draft also recognizes the rights of prisoners and defendants in a country that previously imprisoned and tortured dissidents on an industrial scale. Arresting officers will be obliged to read to detainees their rights. Officials also emphasized the inviolability of private property in the draft. The new constitution marks the “irreversibility of reform” in Uzbekistan, said Eldor Tulyakov, director of the Center for Development Strategies, a pro-government think tank tasked with promoting the new constitution.

Uzbekistan’s economy is on the rise with nearly 6% economic growth in 2022 thanks in part to Mr Mirziyoyev’s reforms. But there is a problem. The new constitution is almost certain to pass without a contested opposition, which could keep him in power for a quarter of a century. Both the current constitution and the new draft limit the president to two consecutive terms, with his second term ending in 2026. But the new constitution would “reset” Mr Mirziyoyev’s term to zero, allowing him to serve two more terms. Since the presidential term will also be extended from five to seven years, Mr Mirziyoyev can retain power until at least 2040. He just needs to keep winning re-election, which is very doable in a country with no political opposition. The new constitution would even give him the right to rule until 2042 by turning his current five-year term into a seven-year term.

This is the very constitutional trick that Mr Mirziyoyev has used for 25 years in power. The latest media crackdown is also reminiscent of Mr Karimov’s era. Social media users have been under pressure to delete posts critical of the new constitution. Mr Mirziyoyev recently said he was committed to the “spirit of freedom” in the media, but that was far from the truth. “The media cannot ask the questions it wants to ask,” 40 press freedom advocates said in a statement last month, which also complained of “pressure and intimidation” by the media. “We will see after the referendum whether there will be no censorship and whether people who pressure journalists will be punished,” said journalist Anora Sodiqova, one of the signatories. She recently announced her departure from a pioneering independent media agency she co-founded, citing “pressure and blackmail” from unidentified figures.

Many voters did not grasp the content of the draft constitution even if they intended to vote yes. The reforms will “make things better for us,” enthuses a retired teacher in Tashkent, though he can’t explain exactly how that happened.

In Karakalpakstan in the country’s northwest, voters appeared more skeptical. Karakalpak took to the streets last year to protest a provision in the first draft of constitutional reforms that would have stripped them of their right to secede, sparking unrest in the autonomous region. Mr Mirziyoyev rescinded the clause after 21 people were killed in an intervention by security forces to quell the protests.

Outrage is still brewing over the killings and their aftermath — including the conviction of 61 prominent lawyers, journalists and other civilians for inciting unrest as part of a separatist plot. No law enforcement officers have been held accountable for the deaths. In Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, many planned to stay away from polling stations. “After they killed all those people, I’m not going to vote!” exclaimed one market trader, a typical reaction from Karakalpakstan.

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