Tajikistan: Many Candidates, No Pluralism
Even though the result of the November election in Tajikistan is a foregone conclusion, the authorities seem to be nervous about the opposition challenge to the incumbent president, Imomali Rahmon.
Opposition members report harassment, intimidation and smear campaigns that are clearly intended to subdue them.
When Social Democratic Party leader Rahmatillo Zoirov indicated that he might want to stand in the election earlier this year, state-run media ran a campaign to discredit him, hinting that he was a spy for neighbouring Uzbekistan, a country with which Tajikistan has a difficult relationship.
On September 22, both the main television channel and children’s TV ran a story alleging that a man accused of sexually abusing and murdering an eight-year-old boy was a member of the Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP). The party, which has the largest membership of any opposition group, had to issue a statement making it clear that the man had no connection with it.
Zayd Saidov, a former government minister who had set up the New Tajikistan party this year, was arrested in May and went on trial this September accused of fraud and abuse of office.The government has also been seeking the extradition from Dubai of Umarali Quvvatov, founder of the opposition Group 24.
The IRP and the Social Democrats are part of a broader coalition, the Union of Reformist Forces, also including Group 24 and New Tajikistan, that has decided to field a common candidate to avoid splitting the opposition vote.
According to Social Democrat leader Zoirov – who has stepped back in favour of Bobonazarova – the authorities are worried at the prospect of a united front.
“This, plus the fact that the ruling [People’s Democratic] party is losing ground, is the reason why the authorities are increasing the pressure on these two parties, trying to sow animosity between them and to break up their coalition if they can,” Zoirov said.
Instead of choosing a politician from their own ranks, the Social Democrats, IRP and their allies have gone for an apolitical figure, the well-known civil society activist, Oinikhol Bobonazarova. (See Surprise Candidate for Tajik Opposition.)
The other opposition candidates are Abduhalim Ghafforov for the Socialist Party and Ismoil Talbakov, deputy head of the Communist Party.
Three pro-government parties also have candidates in the race – Olim Boboev, head of the Party of Economic Reforms, Ahmadbek Bukhoriev for the Agrarian Party, and Democratic Party leader Saidjafar Ismonov.
None of the three has a significant following, and the Socialists and Communists have only limited public support.
It might seem odd that parties that support the president would produce candidates to stand against him. But according to Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy head of the Social Democrats, regime-friendly parties exist to create the impression that political pluralism is alive and well.
“Countries with authoritarian rulers generally set up a number of artificial parties in order to show the world that they have a multiparty system,” he said. “Governments like this fear a [true] multiparty system, since having other parties that function freely might shake their undemocratic foundations and lead to the political elite being replaced.”
President Rahmon’s name has been put forward by the trade union federation and an association of young people. In power since 1992, he is also expected to be nominated by his People’s Democratic Party when it holds its forthcoming congress.
The opposition coalition led by the IRP and Social Democrats says it is being obstructed in its efforts to gather the required 210,000 signatures in support of Bobonazarova, which must be submitted to election officials by October 7 if she is to go forward as a candidate.
Bobonazarova told IWPR that in 20 out of 68 towns and district of Tajikistan, canvassers reported that officials refused to sign the documents needed to allow them to start collecting signatures. Some officials wanted to see other paperwork not required by the law.
“They are refusing to meet them and sign the forms,” Bobonazarova said. “In some cases, they just run away from members of our campaign team.”
She added, “We are not giving up. We will continue our efforts using all possible legal means.”
The rule that local government officers must sign the documents before canvassing for signatures can take place has automatically ruled out the hundreds of thousands of Tajik nationals working abroad, mostly in Russia. Officials say this is just an unfortunate technicality. But the opposition bloc is certain it is a way of preventing it from gathering support among an expat community that is more politically aware than most of the population, and a potential source of votes for Bobonazarova.
IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri says attempts by the authorities to hamper and harass the opposition election campaign reflects a deep unease in the administration.
“I don’t think that political parties and movements have become so much stronger since [the last presidential election] in 2006 that they have become a cause for concern for the ruling elite,” he told IWPR. “This nervousness is more a consequence of their own internal sense of weakness.”
Lola Olimova is IWPR’s Tajikistan editor. Nilufar Karimova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.