Macro Analysis /
Uzbekistan

Draft constitution allows president to extend rule, follows reform narrative

  • Presidential term extended to 7 years, key officials able to remain in power despite term restrictions

  • Social agenda adds state responsibilities regarding spending on healthcare, education, and housing

  • Devolution of power to parliament and local assemblies rather modest overall

EmergingMarketWatch
17 March 2023

The Uzbek authorities have officially published the draft constitution that will be subject to a public referendum on Apr 30. As a whole, the document is in line with the reform narrative employed by President Mirziyoyev in recent years. It features new articles expanding human rights, especially with regard to labour conditions, judicial guarantees, and gender equality. Ultimately, these developments will have to be judged on the quality of implementation. Time will arguably be required for a proper change in political culture, assuming the authorities are genuinely willing to pursue that. At this stage, Western partners will likely acknowledge these introductions as a step in the right direction, which is important for relations with IFIs and investment.

Meanwhile, the main political novelties in the draft constitution very much favour the status quo and the current elite's interests in particular. The presidential term has thus been extended from five to seven years, while the president's stay in power has been limited to two consecutive terms. The latter condition also applies to other key officials like parliamentary speakers, supreme court chairs, governors, mayors, and the prosecutor-general among others. Yet, these restrictions will not apply retroactively, meaning all present officeholders will be able to run two additional times after their current terms expire. With regard to President Mirziyoyev, this implies he could rule until 2040 if he runs in 2026 and 2033 and wins both times. He would be 83 years old by 2040.

SOCIAL AGENDA AND HUMAN RIGHTS

The draft constitution establishes Uzbekistan as a 'social' state as early as the first article. This is not surprising since Mirziyoyev initially presented the constitutional reform process as an effort to guarantee justice and solidarity. Specifically, this is backed by several new additions stipulating that the state will seek to expand housing construction alongside investment in healthcare and education. The document also notes pensions, disability payments, and the minimum wage will be tailored to ensure 'adequate' living standards, though further qualifications are not made. In addition, the state's responsibilities have been expanded to include environmental protection and creating conditions for a healthy lifestyle, which arguably reflects the influence of Western partners.

As outlined above, the constitutional draft also entails a strong focus on human rights, with a separate paragraph highlighting protection of individual rights and freedoms as a priority for the state. An important step in terms of relations with the international community is the decision to abolish the death penalty. Another new article outlines the presumption of innocence as a fundamental judicial principle. The draft constitution also prohibits sentencing solely on account of admission of guilt and decrees respectful treatment of prisoners as well as their relatives. Additional provisions guarantee the right to counsel and sets requirements concerning chain of custody. As a whole, all proposed reforms in this sphere are especially pertinent after last year's disturbances in Karakalpakstan. The Uzbek authorities were subsequently criticised for law enforcement's inhumane treatment of protesters, including reports of torture, excessive violence, and failure to provide lawyers access to their clients.

Outside of the judicial sphere, the draft constitution importantly bans forced labour and child labour in cases when the latter presents obstacles to a child's development and/or formal education. We remind that last year the US lifted long-standing sanctions against Uzbekistan, citing eradication of forced labour and child labour. The addition of a related article to the constitution will be a concrete benchmark in this respect. Similarly, one of the new paragraphs stipulates women cannot be fired, prevented from gaining employment, or targeted with wage cuts on account of being pregnant / having children. It is also important to note that the draft constitution states international norms and agreements are part of Uzbekistan's legal system. If an international treaty contradicts domestic legislation, the former will be favoured.

There is one paragraph that could be considered controversial in this first set of proposed changes. Specifically, the article on freedom of speech now includes a stipulation that the government needs to take measures to ensure internet access. At the same time, access to information can be limited to protect Uzbekistan's statehood, the health and/or rights of its people, national security, and 'social mores'. This phrasing is quite broad and abstract, meaning decisions will arguably depend on interpretations favouring the authorities. There have been precedents when internet and mobile connection were cut to prevent spread of 'unfavourable' information, the most recent example being the Karakalpakstan protests.

POLITICAL SYSTEM

The longer presidential term and limits to key officials' stay in power are not the only political shifts featured in the new constitution, but are arguably the most significant. Apart from them, there is a modest attempt to devolve some power from the president to parliament and from parliament to local governance structures. MPs will thus determine government debt limits and review annual anti-corruption reports. The lower chamber of parliament will also control budget performance, while foreign ambassadors and the prosecutor-general will present their official reports to the Senate. In addition, the lower chamber will participate in a new procedure for approval and appointment of PMs as well as ministers. Based on the current changes, the president will present a PM candidate following consultations with all parliamentary groups, after which MPs will review the proposal and vote on it. In the past, the party with parliamentary majority would nominate a candidate and the president would have to approve them. After the PM nominates ministers, they will also need to be approved by parliament.

The draft constitution also corresponds with official efforts to reduce Uzbekistan's bureaucracy and thus proposes cutting the number of senators from 100 to 65. These cuts concern both the quota of senators appointed by the president and those elected through secret voting by local MPs. With regard to local governance, there is a stipulation that MPs cannot simultaneously hold places in local or regional assemblies. This implies potential for elite decentralisation and formation of local ruling classes, though Uzbekistan's political system is not particularly open to newcomers, which could limit progress. A small number of parliamentary prerogatives will be transferred to local assemblies, but the change is mostly cosmetic and will not meaningfully redress the balance of power. Importantly, all articles concerning the republic of Karakalpakstan have been left unchanged after last year's attempts to amend them caused protests.

More generally, there is a new constitutional article qualifying civil society groups and stipulating they can only be disbanded in specific legal cases. The state is also meant to encourage youth participation in civil society (though specific mechanisms are not listed), which is symptomatic of the top-down approach preferred in most post-Soviet republics. The draft constitution features an additional business-related article stating the authorities ought to ensure a favourable investment climate and business environment. It also introduces guarantees on free movement of goods, labour, and capital across the country.

REFERENDUM PROSPECTS AND AFTERMATH

We believe the new constitution will be approved at the Apr 30 referendum. The project has been in development since last year and we expect the state apparatus to mobilise civl servants and core voters, ensuring sufficient popular support. In general, anecdotal evidence suggests people met the idea of constitutional reform with mixed feelings. While the draft corresponds with the official narrative of democratisation and social solidarity, there are no fundamental shifts per se that could attract popular interest. Internally, the project will likely be criticised for cementing Uzbekistan's current elite at the top (at least in the medium term) despite the theoretical attempt to foster transition of power. Yet, we see very limited potential for social outrage and disturbances, either in the lead-up to the referendum or afterwards.

As outlined above, implementation will be the real determinant of progress with regard to human rights. At this stage, we believe the Uzbek authorities' main goal is to appease foreign partners, thus ensuring continued integration in the international community and subsequent economic benefits. A wider cultural shift will require political will from the ruling class, which is difficult to evaluate at this point, though its past track record hardly causes optimism. Overall, President Mirziyoyev is expected to pursue further opening of Uzbekistan's market, which implies certain economic shifts concerning privatisation, reform of SOEs, and gradual reduction of state participation in the economy. At the same time, this does not necessarily call for deep political transformation, so the new constitution is not an obstacle (or an evident stepping stone) in this respect.