Wednesday, 14 June 2023

Uzbekistan’s Constitutional Referendum

Published in Analytical Articles

By Farkhod Tolipov

June 14, 2023

On April 30, 2023, Uzbekistan held a referendum on amendments to the country’s Constitution. The referendum was preceded by an ambitious propaganda campaign calling on people not to be indifferent and to actively participate in the referendum. However, the controversial text of the draft Constitution appeared to be worked out in closed cabinets of the Constitutional Commission without broader engagement of experts and civil society representatives. Loud propaganda, in the spirit of Soviet tradition, contrasted with the silence of ordinary citizens and their very low level of awareness of the content of the document subjected to the vote. 

Uzbek Referendum small


BACKGROUND: One year after gaining its independence – on December 8, 1992 – Uzbekistan adopted its first Constitution as a newly independent state. It was symbolically called “Karimov’s Constitution” relating it to the first President of the new state, Islam Karimov. International experts and media positively evaluated that Constitution as a strong, cohesive and fundamental main law of the country, providing for democratic governance and basic human rights. 

In the 30 years since, Uzbekistan was often subjected to criticism for non-democratic governance, human rights abuses and violation of constitutional norms and other laws of the country. 

In December 2016 a new President – Shavkat Mirziyoev – was elected for a five-year term. He was re-elected for a second term in October 2021 and acquired substantial popularity as a reformist and a progressive leader in Uzbekistan as well as abroad. Despite relatively successful economic reforms, Uzbekistan’s political regime has remained autocratic. Rampant corruption, nepotism, a low level of qualification of officials, and in many instances a dysfunctional parliament caused political stagnation. In his December 2022 address to the parliament and to the people, Mirziyoev said, among other things, that a regime of “manual control” persisted in state governance, reflecting inefficiency of the entire political system where individuals, governors or the president, not institutions and rules, determine the course of policy.

In late 2021, Mirziyoev stated that Uzbekistan’s existing Constitution needs amendments reflecting the new reality and the new tasks the country is facing. He initiated a corresponding organizational and political process towards drafting the new text of the Constitution. A Constitutional Commission was set up consisting exclusively of deputies in Oliy Majlis (the parliament). Independent experts and civil society representatives were not involved in its work. It was announced that a web portal was created to collect suggestions from citizens regarding the necessary amendments. 

The first draft Constitution was prepared by June 2022 and published for public discussion. Protests occurred in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpak Autonomous Republic, where the local population did not accept the draft in which the sovereign republican status of this province was deleted. This was the first negative reaction to the proposed draft Constitution, which revealed the overall poor-quality work of the Constitutional Commission. 

IMPLICATIONS: The President later announced that the process should not be rushed and that work on the draft should continue. The referendum, expected to be held in 2022, was postponed and by the end of the year a new text of the Constitution was prepared. In the spirit of Soviet public communication, it was surprisingly announced that 27 new articles were included and about 65 percent of the old Constitution was amended, thereby creating the impression that “the more amendments, the better.” When the final draft was ready, a substantial propaganda campaign was launched, which excluded any open critique concerning concrete articles and chapters. 

Meanwhile, the articles that were in most need of amendment were not changed while articles that did not need to be amended were “improved” with certain additional paragraphs. For example, the proposed Preamble of the Constitution says that the history of Uzbekistan’s statehood covers a period of over 3,000 years, which is very debatable. This statement in the Preamble is irrelevant to the Constitution, which is not a historical document. 

The first article of the new draft says that Uzbekistan is a democratic, legal, social and secular state. The latter three new words were included in this article making it very ambiguous because such notions as social and secular state are not well defined and hide controversial meaning. 

The article about the khokims (provincial, city and district governors) was left untouched. While demands have been raised to introduce the long-awaited election of khokims, this amendment was not included. Khokims will continue to be appointed from above, making them omnipotent and incentivizing abuses of power.

The presidential term was changed from five years to seven years, a constitutional amendment that no one has been able to convincingly explain and justify. Actually, in the history of independent Uzbekistan, the presidential term has been arbitrarily changed several times: from five to seven years in the early 2000-s, then from seven to five years, and now again from five to seven years. Such ridiculous manipulation with laws cannot but profoundly distort the democratic political process and creates the impression that the entire exercise is aimed at prolonging the current regime. Indeed, this raised allegations that the incumbent’s term can now be nullified and that he can be re-elected for two more terms of 7 years each. Some MPs and lawyers have justified that that he will have a legal right to re-nomination. 

It would also be desirable for the Constitution to include a norm according to which independent candidates who are not party members can be nominated for parliamentary elections. However, unfortunately, such a norm was not included. 

By and large, the new text of the Constitution contains several deficiencies, mistakes and controversies. Moreover, there is very low public awareness of the content of the Constitution – the main law that will determine the lives of Uzbek citizens for many years ahead. This was revealed by sociological surveys and journalists’ interviews among ordinary people, as well as the observations of several experts. 

The referendum passed in the Soviet spirit, with an “Hurrah!” so to speak, where 90 percent of votes were cast in support of the Constitutional Law. This figure, even if it is real, hardly reflects actual support of the Constitutional Law based on real awareness among citizens of its content, since the text was prepared without nationwide public and critical discussion. Rather, the referendum once again manifested the Soviet syndrome: loud propaganda called on the people not to be indifferent to the constitutional amendments, whereas the people remains indifferent and tacitly accepts any proposal or decision from the top, believing that the leadership is always right. 

The referendum revealed at least three obstacles to democratization in Uzbekistan, namely: a) low level of public political literacy; b) a low level of professionalism and qualification of the Constitutional Commission as well as those involved in the propaganda campaign; and c) an increasing cult of personality of the president. In the coming years, the state and the nation of Uzbekistan will face the essential challenge of overcoming these obstacles or face their further exacerbation. 

CONCLUSIONS: The work of the Constitutional Commission was non-transparent and very formal, and in this sense irresponsible from the point of view of national interests. The main law of the country should have been the product of a creative endeavor involving the whole nation. 

Solemn and loud nationwide propaganda calling on people “not to be indifferent” and actively participate in the referendum contrasted with a silent, passive and conformist public opinion on the one hand, and opportunistic political parties and political elites on the other. Notably, Uzbekistan has over the last several years demonstrated significant progress in economic, social, cultural, educational, technological, infrastructural and other reforms, which attracted greater international attention to the country. 

However, Uzbekistan cannot boast of any major political reforms, which so far remain very modest and insignificant. After more than thirty years of independence, it could be assumed that the time is ripe for accelerating Uzbekistan’s democratization, however, this prospect remains very much under question. 

Through the theatrical referendum, Uzbekistan’s Constitution was put to the essential test. Whether the “renovated” Constitution will really contribute to democratization and acceleration of political reforms in the country remains to be seen. Many of the, so to speak, “added values” of the Constitution did not constitute improvements to Karimov’s Constitution, but rather added new controversies and problems that will remain until the next amendment process in an uncertain future. In all likelihood, real rather than ostentatious improvements of the main law of the country will be left to coming generations. 

Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan”, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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