Uzbekistan's referendum could see the president staying in power until 2040

Officials began counting ballots on Sunday after polls closed in Uzbekistan's referendum on a revised constitution that promises human rights reforms but also would allow the country's president to stay in office until 2040.

Approval appears certain.

Backers conducted an array of promotional events featuring local celebrities, and elections in Uzbekistan are widely regarded as non competitive.

The proposed changes include lengthening the presidential term from five to seven years, while retaining the existing two-term limit.

Although President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is in his second term, the change in term length would allow him to run twice more after his current tenure ends in 2026.

Other changes include abolishing capital punishment and boosting legal protections for citizens, including those accused of crimes.

Under Mirziyoyev's predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was one of the region's most repressive countries.

Mirziyoyev, who took over after Karimov died in 2016, touts the constitutional changes as showing that Uzbekistan will make freedoms and human rights paramount.

The referendum originally was planned for last year but was put off in the wake of deadly unrest in the Karakalpakstan region when it was announced that the changes would include rescinding Karakalpakstan's right to vote on whether to secede.

Although the likelihood of secession is very small, that proposal angered residents of the poor and environmentally beleaguered republic that makes up a third of Uzbekistan's territory but has only about five per cent of the country's 36 million people.

Mass unrest broke out in the Karakalpak capital, Nukus; at least 18 people died in clashes with police.

The new package being voted on Sunday retains the Karakalpakstan secession right.