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Tajiks hand president up to 14 more years in power
By Dmitry Solovyov

DUSHANBE, June 23 (Reuters) - Former Soviet republic Tajikistan voted overwhelmingly in a weekend referendum to alter its constitution and hand its veteran president up to 14 more years in power, officials said on Monday.

The opposition called the outcome a "travesty of democracy" and the United States criticised the transparency of the referendum in a Central Asian state ruled since 1992 by President Imomali Rakhmonov.

The result surprised few in an impoverished nation where peasants, with little interest in the machinery of politics, make up three quarters of the electorate.

Electoral officials said more than 93 percent of voters backed constitutional change, with turnout soaring above 96 percent.

"Turnout was very high. We did not get a single complaint from the numerous foreign observers," said Mirzoali Boltuyev, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission.

Some 29 registered foreign observers were spread across 2,800 polling stations in the mountainous country on Afghanistan's northern border.

Leaders of Tajikistan's small opposition said the electorate had not been sufficiently informed to judge the real consequences of Sunday's referendum.

"The vote results are just unbelievable," Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, spokesman for the Islamic Renaissance Party.

Islamic rebels fought Rakhmonov's Moscow-backed government in a five-year civil war ending in 1997, which ravaged the country.

"The reality is that the Tajik people don't understand all these elections and referendums, they will vote 'yes' only to preserve the peace," he said.


Among 50 amendments submitted to voters as a single package was a proposal to allow the president to be elected for two consecutive seven-year terms, not counting his present mandate.

Rakhmonov should see his current mandate expire in 2006. But amendments passed in Sunday's vote will allow him to stay on as president until 2020.

"This is a sheer travesty of democracy," said Makhmadrouzi Iskandarov, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party.

Washington called on Monday for the Tajik government to hold free and fair elections at regular intervals.

"We have repeatedly stated ... that a constitutional referendum in that country should meet international standards for transparency. Unfortunately, this exercise that was held over the weekend did not meet those standards," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.

Rakhmonov, a 50-year-old former collective farm boss, weathered the civil war that killed tens of thousands and is lionised by official propaganda as the saviour of the nation.

Leaders of other Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan -- have all extended their presidencies through similar votes.

In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, the object of an all-pervasive personality cult has been made president-for-life by parliament, but has promised to step down in 2010.

"You can see a similar scenario across post-Soviet Central Asia -- undemocratic elections or plebiscites held under coercion and with a different official reason given every time," Iskandarov said.

The United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, both actively involved in Tajikistan's peace process, declined to send observers to monitor the vote.

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