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Tajikistan votes in referendum on unlimited term for president

Tajikistan has gone to the polls in a referendum on a slew of constitutional changes set to strengthen President Rakhmon's power. They include a ban on religious parties and dropping term limits for the incumbent leader.

The ex-Soviet nation of Tajikistan began voting on Sunday on 41 proposed constitutional amendments which are expected to boost the power of President Emomali Rakhmon and his family.

Over 3,200 polling stations were available to voters in the Central Asian nation, with additional posts available in several major Russian cities, where more than one million Tajiks live and work.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders reported on Saturday that Tajikistan's government had been "blocking," "intimidating" and "threatening" independent media in the buildup to the referendum.

Critics say Rakhmon - who has ruled since 1994 - has disregarded religious freedoms, civil society and political diversity in recent years.

Unlimited terms

Several constitutional changes have been suggested in the referendum, including allowing Rakhmon, 63,

to run for an unlimited number of terms.

The term-limit amendment applies only to Rakhmon, who was given "Leader of the Nation" status last year by parliament.

Other proposed changes to Rakhmon's benefit include a lowering of the presidential age limit from 35 to 30, which would enable the president's 28-year-old son, Rustam, to run for the position after his father.

Religious parties banned

Another key constitutional amendment would institute a blanket ban on the formation of political parties based on religion in the majority-Muslim country.

Last year, a court shut down the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), after the government

branded it a terrorist group.

Some party leaders of the IRPT are facing life sentences

on charges of plotting a coup.

The party stemmed from an Islamist opposition bloc that fought against Rakhmon's government in the 1990s. Rakhmon's government crackdown on the party broke with a power-sharing agreement which ended the bloody civil war

The polls are expected to close around 15:00 UTC, and results from the yes-no vote will be declared on Monday.

According to Western election monitors, Tajikistan has never held a free and fair election.

Watch video 04:21

Tajikistan: A cauldron for Islamic extremists

rs/tj (AFP, Reuters)

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