Sailing with the authoritarian winds sweeping the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, President Islam A. Karimov of Uzbekistan appeared headed for victory Sunday in a referendum that allows him to extend his presidency until the year 2000.
Uzbek officials announced that more than 53% of the long-submissive electorate had voted by 11 a.m., leaving little doubt that the hard-line former Communist leader will remain in control without having to face a reelection campaign in 1997.
In a startlingly similar ploy a day earlier, Kazakhstan President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev decreed that his oil-rich republic also will hold a referendum on extending his presidency until the end of the century.
The announcement of the April 29 referendum stunned some of the democrats and intellectuals who had applauded the popular Nazarbayev's decision earlier this month to disband his balky Parliament after the Constitutional Court invalidated March, 1994, parliamentary elections.
Kazakhstan State University historian Nurbulat Masanov called the referendum part of a trend toward "the restoration of totalitarian regimes" in Central Asia.
In these fledgling nations, where paternalistic, clan-based politics persisted for decades under the cover of Soviet rule, voters have not unlearned their old habit of casting only ballots that say "yes." Thus, any leader capable of outfoxing the opposition and calling a referendum can be virtually assured of winning it.
Karimov and Nazarbayev appear to be cribbing from the political stylebook of a neighboring Central Asian strongman, Turkmenistan President Saparmurad A. Niyazov.
Niyazov came to power in 1992 claiming 99.9% of the vote. Last year he held a referendum in which 99.9% of his constituents again purportedly voted "yes" to keeping him president until 2002. In November, Turkmenistan held what were billed as elections for a new Parliament. Fifty candidates ran for the 50 seats--one in each district.
"To pretend that democracy is being built in Central Asia is a bit of a joke," said Pauline Jones Luong, a U.S. political scientist based in the Kazakh capital, Almaty.
"Central Asian countries are not interested in democracy--they're interested in economic aid, in having the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank approve of what they're doing," she said. "So they're setting up a facade of democracy."
All of the leaders have committed themselves to building free-market systems, and all are actively wooing Western investors. But all have cracked down on political rivals, dissidents and the press.
Still, even the toughest tactics have provoked little resistance from populations terrified that a weak government would invite the kind of strife that has scorched Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.
Luong said that Uzbekistan's Karimov, a former member of the Soviet Politburo, reportedly has been putting pressure on the "softest" leader in the region, Kyrgyzstan President Askar A. Akayev, to toughen up lest Akayev attract Western censure to his neighbors by his democratic example.
Uzbekistan held its first post-Soviet parliamentary elections this winter, producing a legislature dominated by Karimov's People's Democratic Party, the successor to the former Uzbek Communist Party favoring a gradual approach to reform.
Some foreign observers said the elections should be considered valid, while others announced that the balloting had been neither free nor fair. Two radical nationalist movements, Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom), claimed that they were unable to register their candidates.
Karimov has since embarked on the nation's first privatization program in a bid to revive the collapsing economy. The ambitious goal is to boost the private sector to 60% of the economy by selling off state mining, coal and energy industries.
An Uzbek opposition leader in Moscow called Karimov's decision to hold a referendum unconstitutional and predicted that political repression will increase now that neither the president nor Parliament will face the voters for five years.
"Islam Karimov would have won the next elections too," said Yadgar Abidov, a Birlik leader interviewed in Moscow. "But he might have met with some unpleasant inconveniences during the campaign, because social tensions are growing. People's living standards are plummeting. They are going hungry. They are just beginning to speak openly of their discontent."