Constitutional referendum in ‘New Uzbekistan’ follows the old script

Uzbekistan's president Shavkat Mirziyoyev voting at the constitutional referendum. Screenshot from the O'zMTRK O'zbekiston milliy teleradiokompaniyasi YouTube channel.

After almost two years of tinkering by the government, Uzbekistan finally has a new constitution. On May 1, the Central Election Commission of Uzbekistan announced the final results of the constitutional referendum that took place on April 30. The voter turnout was 84.54 percent; 90.21 percent voted in favor and 9.35 percent against adopting a new constitution. The Chairman of the Commission, Zayniddin Nizamkhodjaev congratulated people “on adopting a new constitution, using their right to a referendum held in an open and transparent manner.”

The new constitution entered into effect on May 1 and replaced the previous one adopted on December 8, 1992. In the next two months, the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan will develop a set of measures to bring the legislation in line with the new constitution and submit it to the country’s parliament. Within the next three months, the government will adopt a “program of measures to ensure the implementation of the socio-economic obligations of the state,” guaranteed by the new supreme law. The new constitution is 65 percent different from the previous one, and the number of articles in it has increased from 126 to 155.

Successful at the second try

The constitutional referendum was long in the making and caused a great deal of trouble both for the people and government of Uzbekistan. The country’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev first announced plans for amending the constitution in November 2021, after being reelected for his second and final term under the previous constitution. The draft of a new constitution was published in June 2022 with plans to hold a referendum at the end of 2022.

In a surprising turn of events, the draft stripped the Autonomous Region of Karakalpakstan of the right to secede from the mainland through a referendum. On July 1 and 2, Karakalpaks, an ethnic minority in Uzbekistan, took to the streets to protest against removing their right to self-determination. The protests turned violent and claimed the lives of 17 civilians and 4 military personnel, making them the second largest and deadliest protests in the history of Uzbekistan. The government postponed the constitutional referendum and kept Karakalpakstan’s right to seek independence.

Here is a YouTube video of the protests in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan.

A social state and the same president until 2040

The referendum result is likely to have a profound and long lasting effect on the country. The political leadership of the country has asserted the necessity of adopting the new constitution to build a “New Uzbekistan,” a political concept promoted by Mirziyoyev. In his own words, it is an “open and fair society that cares about every citizen.” More importantly, this concept has allowed Mirziyoyev to differentiate his rule from the tyrannical regime of his predecessor Islam Karimov, who died in 2016.

The authorities framed adopting the new constitution as the foundation for carrying on political, economic, and social reforms. In this regard, some noteworthy changes are the declaration of Uzbekistan as a social state, adoption of the principle “man-society-state” instead of “state-society-man,” and the provision that states that honor and dignity of a person are inviolable. However, all these changes could have been introduced through non-referendum means such as adopting and amending laws.

Here is a YouTube video that shows what exactly Uzbekistani citizens know about the new constitution.

The independent expert community unanimously agrees that the main goal of holding the referendum was to nullify Mirzioyev’s previous two presidential terms and open the door for his reelection. The new constitution increased the length of a presidential term from five to seven years with the possibility of running for two terms. There is now legal ground for Mirziyoyev to remain in power until 2040 and almost equal Karimov's time in office, which stretched for 25 years, a development that is hard to fit into the discourse of political reforms. The Deputy Speaker of the Senate of Uzbekistan, Sodiq Safoyev has already explained that “all citizens, including the current president” are eligible to run in the next 2026 presidential elections under the new constitution.

The nullifying of the presidential terms is not the only thing reminiscent of old Uzbekistan. The referendum was characterized by the absence of any critical discussions around the proposed changes and numerous violations on the election day. The most common recorded violation was one person voting for his/her family members, a practice found in virtually all elections in Uzbekistan. Journalists also reported the passivity of observers and and in some places their utter absence.

Here is a video of a woman filling out at least six ballots. Video from Shuhrat Latipov's public Telegram channel.

The Central Election Commission responded to them and annulled the vote counts at three polling stations, stating that they were insignificant to affect the overall results. The OSCE ODIHR monitoring mission hailed the technical preparation of the referendum, but noted that it “took place in an environment without genuine political pluralism, and there was no organized opposition to the amendments and the referendum.” What this statement alluded to was the fact that the authorities allowed only pro-new constitution campaigning around the referendum. Criticism of the changes and contestation of the decision to hold the referendum were absent from the public space, which harkens back to the old authoritarian days under Karimov. On April 30, Mirziyoyev's “New Uzbekistan” looked awfully similar to the old one.

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