Tajikistan: Moves Afoot to Expand Strongman’s Powers?
Being president may not be enough for Emomali Rahmon. If a band of obsequious, state-sponsored academics have their wish, he could soon become “Leader of the Nation” – a title that has been used in the region to evade pesky regulations, like term limits.
In a lengthy article published on the ruling People Democratic Party’s website, political scientists Nosirjon Salimi and Holahmad Sami of Dushanbe’s Pedagogical University insist that Rahmon – who came to power 23 years ago and has systematically crushed all opposition – is more than a president: “The leader of our nation is the guarantor of justice, law and order; he protects our citizens from arbitrary bureaucracy and defends their rights and freedoms. He creates a climate of law and order.”
It is safe to say the article exaggerates Rahmon’s achievements, crediting him with building a democratic government, fighting drug trafficking and reducing poverty. The authors place a special emphasis on Rahmon as peacemaker. “Today, without exception, all members of society recognize it was our leader who was responsible for the restoration of peace, stability and national reconciliation,” they state, suggesting that Rahmon alone ended the 1990s civil war.
The academics liken Rahmon to Charles de Gaulle, Mahatma Gandhi and the late Singaporean autocrat Lee Kuan Yew. Like them, Rahmon has built a nation, bringing “success and progress for the people,” they say.
“Perhaps leaders do not need to be given such titles,” the academics conclude. But “nations experiencing the clash of civilizations and impact of globalization need to acknowledge their leaders.”
Rahmon is no stranger to honors. Many Tajiks refer to him simply as Janobi Oli or “Your Excellency.” In 1999 the Tajik parliament recognized Rahmon as a “hero of Tajikistan,” an accolade only five other people have received. Earlier this year, the head of the State Religious Committee called Rahmon “a star of happiness” and “the sun” in a florid article published by a government-owned newspaper.
Little happens in Tajikistan without Rahmon’s blessing, so it seems possible the fawning academics were helping fulfill a plan, unleashing the murmurs that could crescendo into calls for constitutional change.
Other regional strongmen have used such titles to dodge legal limits on their presidencies. The Kazakh parliament bestowed the same accolade on long-time president Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2010, changing the constitution to allow him alone to stand for office indefinitely. Earlier this year, Nazarbayev claimed he was only responding to an outpouring of popular support when he promised to hold snap presidential elections in which he would stand yet again, catching the feeble opposition off-guard.
And let us not forget Turkmenistan’s former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled his country as Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen, until his sudden death in 2007.
Not everyone in Tajikistan welcomes the call. “Only presidents in autocratic states call themselves chiefs and leaders," the country’s first female presidential candidate, Oynihol Bobonazarova, told Radio Ozodi. Bobonazarova also questioned the legality of such a move.
But the constitution is no barrier to Rahmon. Although the 1994 constitution limited the president to two five-year terms, his rubber-stamp parliament has repeatedly amended the document to allow him to keep running. He is due to stand again in 2020, at the earliest.