Clock Ticking for Tajik Opposition Campaign

Opposition parties fail to reach consensus on fielding a common candidate in November’s presidential election.

Clock Ticking for Tajik Opposition Campaign

Opposition parties fail to reach consensus on fielding a common candidate in November’s presidential election.

As the presidental election in Tajikistan moves closer, opposition groups are trying to forge a coalition which would field the strongest possible contender against the incumbent Imomali Rahmonov. But the plan seems to have fallen at the first hurdle, as two major opposition groups have failed to sign up.

Tajikistan has a diverse range of political parties ranging from social democrats to Islamists and communists. But all of them are overshadowed by the pro-presidential People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, PDPT, which swept the board in the last parliamentary election, held in February 2005.

Only two other parties made it past the threshold for parliamentary representation, the Communist Party winning four seats in the 63 seat body, and the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, just two.

Given their marginalised position, some opposition leaders are saying their only hope to field an effective challenge to the president - who has been in power since 1992 and who, as the incumbent, will be able to call on substantial resources, including state-controlled media and the PDPT - is to join forces.

Few observers believe there is much chance that Rahmonov will be defeated, but most opposition parties want to make a point by offering voters a credible political agenda.

The aim, said Social Democrats leader Rahmatillo Zoirov, is to “if not win the election, then at least create a viable alternative to the current president”.

However, differences in approach may fatally damage their campaign.

Political analysts interviewed by IWPR suggest the logical tactic is for the opposition parties to band together and identify one strong candidate to represent them all. There is an initiative to do just that, but so far it has won support only among those parties which did not win seats.

The plan for a joint candidate was conceived by the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, SDPT, and the Democratic Party of Tajikistan and Socialist Party leader Mirhusein Narziev subsequently said he would join the electoral pact.

These smaller parties may have led the way, because they feel more squeezed by political pressure than the bigger ones. According to Zoirov, “The SDPT’s activity can be compared to the work of some sort of illegal party. Only in the capital [Dushanbe] is our party more or less free. Our party members are being hounded by various [government] bodies.”

The Communists, while not fully supportive of the Rahmonov government, have tended not to confront it, and so do not count as part of the opposition mainstream.

The question now is whether the Islamists will sign up. The IRP – the lead player in the anti-government guerrilla movement during the 1992-97 civil war - is Central Asia’s only legal Islamic party, and claims to be recruiting increasing numbers of supporters although its part in the conflict and its Islamic name-tag have historically restricted its appeal.

The IRP leadership has said that it would consider backing a single presidential candidate. But in March, the head of its policy analysis unit, Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, signalled that the party planned to go it alone.

“The IRP is going to participate in the upcoming presidential election, and will propose its own candidate. This is a decision from the party’s political council. The IRP is currently busy preparing its election campaign events,” said Saifullozoda in a press statement.

In an interview with IWPR, Saifullozoda explained that his party had reservations about a common candidate, who it felt might not articulate its own views and plans adequately.

The Democratic Party has been seriously weakened by the October 2005 jailing of its chairman Mahmadruzi Iskandarov – who has stepped down as party leader – and by a schism in early April in which Masud Sobirov announced the creation of a faction called Vatan (Homeland).

Despite these setbacks, the Democrats have also said they will be fielding their own, separate candidate. Instead of a unitary election bloc, they are proposing a coalition – similar to one formed for the 2005 ballot – that will monitor the fairness of the presidential election.

Deputy party chief Rahmatullo Valiev told IWPR that it would be extremely difficult to for the parties to agree on one candidate because they have such different agendas and because each one would push its own person to fill the role. “However, we do not reject the idea of coalition to monitor the controlling transparency and legality of the election,” he added.

With the Islamists and the Democrats out, the prospects for an effective coalition grow dim.

Zoiirov appeared to recognise this, saying that if key parties stayed out of the coalition, it should cast its net wider, “The notion – prevalent in Tajikistan - that the opposition consists only of political parties has to be overturned. There is now a need to form an opposition coalition that represents all parts of society and state institutions.”

Observers agree that things do not look good for the opposition, though they differ on the reasons for this.

Mahmud Alimov, a political analyst, dismisses the maneouvring as “simply comical”.

“Immediately [after] they emerge on the political arena, they start quarrelling with one another, resulting in them dividing into ever smaller [parties]. Good examples of this are the schism in the Socialist Party and recent emergence of the new Vatan faction within the Democratic Party,” he said. “If they can’t find common ground within their own parties, they are even less likely to agree when it comes to nominating a single candidate.”

Iskandar Asadulloev, head of the Simurg Centre for Political Research, believes that the more radical stance of the smaller, pro-coalition parties will lose them the support of bigger opposition groups which are in a more comfortable position. “The majority of these parties do not strive for intense confrontations. The IRP does not want to aggravate its relationship with those who are in power, so as to maintain social stability. And I’m positive that the Communist Party won’t even nominate a candidate,” he said.

By contrast, political scientist Rahmon Ulmasov believes the election date is still too far off for a fairly inexperienced opposition to be galvanised into action – but that this may change over time, “I think that later on, closer to election day, those parties that have not nominated candidates of their own may lend their support to a candidate from a different party.”

Abdugani Mamadazimov, who heads the National Association of Political Scientists, says that even if opposition forces realise the tactical benefits of joining forces, they have little chance against the president’s well-oiled campaign machine.

“All parties except for the ruling one are currently in deep crisis, and there is only one real candidate, the incumbent president,” said Mamadazimov.

“I am sure that the [opposition] parties taken together will not win even 10 per cent of the vote, while the PDPT will get 65 to 70 per cent even if the executive authorities do not intervene [to back the Rahmonov campaign]. And since they definitely will be intervene, their vote will rise as high as 90 per cent.”

Outside election time, the PDPT is fairly inactive, and policy is generally driven directly by Rahmonov and his ministers. One of the party’s main functions seems to be to mobilise votes – and many observers agree that it is fairly effective at doing this.

The PDPT is currently on a recruitment drive, sometimes executed with Soviet-style methods. There are frequent media reports of large groups of people in a particular region of the country joining the party.

One member of staff at a state company in Dushanbe said she and her colleagues were issued with PDPT membership forms and instructed to fill them in. “I really don’t need this,” she said, “but I don’t want to provoke my bosses, as this could potentially lead to me being fired - and you know how much unemployment there is these days.”

According to Ilhom Nazriev, a journalist who writes on international affairs, the party is simply perpetuating a strong Central Asian tradition where might is held to be right.

“People in eastern countries don’t respect the weak, and show a preference for those who represent authority. In the old days, the Communists were in power so people wanted to become Communist Party members. Now President Rahmonov embodies the PDPT, so being a member of that party is regarded as prestigious.”

With the PDPT already gearing up to back its candidate in an election that – if past ballots are anything to go by – is likely to be condemned as deeply flawed by opposition parties and international observers, the playing field is already less than even. As the clock ticks, opportunities to create a broad-based, effective campaign bloc are growing slimmer.

Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.
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