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Hard Times for Tajik Opposition

Complaints that the general election was unfair have provoked a backlash against an already weak opposition.
By IWPR Central Asia

The authorities in Tajikistan have reacted to protests about the way the recent parliamentary election was run by putting added pressure on the opposition parties that made the complaint.


Opposition leaders say the Central Electoral Commission, CEC, has ignored a formal appeal that several parties filed on February 28, the day after the election. In a March 4 statement, they said they were submitting to the CEC a full 85-page document detailing a series of alleged procedural abuses in the capital Dushanbe, where the opposition fielded most of its election observers, and calls for re-runs in these constituencies.


Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, head of the IRP’s central office, said the CEC should by law have reviewed the parties’ initial complaint within three days of receiving it, but has instead said it will do so within a month.


“One senses that the electoral process is not being guided by the CEC, but rather from elsewhere,” said Saifullozoda.


A CEC spokesman has since told the Avesta news agency that the commission will respond formally only after the incoming parliament sits for the first time on March 17.


The election commission’s local branch in Dushanbe retorted that the allegations made by opposition parties were “baseless” and showed “a lack of respect for the people’s will”.


Official results released by the CEC have only added to concerns about the fairness of the ballot. After the final count the day after the election, the CEC announced that the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan, PDPT, of President Imomali Rahmonov had won an astonishing 85 per cent of the vote. In second place was the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, with just 6.1 per cent, and the Communists – the only other party represented in the previous parliament – got 5.3 per cent.


The Democratic Party with 1.7 per cent and the Social Democrats with 0.7 per cent failed to meet the five per cent threshold for entry to parliament.


But shortly after opposition parties said they disputed the results, the CEC came up with a different breakdown: the PDPT’s vote fell to 74 per cent, the Communist Party more than doubled to 13.6 per cent, and the IRP increased to 8.9 per cent.


After run-off elections were held on March 14 in constituencies in Asht, Matcha and Hissar, the final PDPT vote translated into 17 of the 22 parliamentary seats elected through a party list system. PDPT members also accounted for 35 of the 41 single mandate constituency seats, so the party ends up with a whopping majority of 52 of the 63 seats in the lower house of parliament. The Communists won four seats (all but one via the party list system) and the IRP two party seats.


Critics of the process have interpreted the shifting numbers as a tactic to put the government’s opponents where it wants them. For example, the Communists – seen as generally favourable to the authorities – seem to have acquired an extra two seats in parliament because of the revision.


In the wake of the criticism, the authorities appear to be trying to curb their opponents by charging some opposition members and planting stories in the media.


The Social Democratic Party has fared worse, even though it will not be represented in parliament and does not present much of a threat to the administration. It may have been singled out because its leader Rahmatillo Zoirov suggested that if the CEC failed to review the election results, his party might organise public protests.


On March 13, two party members from the Jabborrasul district in northern Tajikistan, losing candidate Nizomiddin Begmatov and his agent Nasim Shukurov, were arrested after being questioned by prosecutors. Zoirov said the charges, relating to slander and “insulting the authorities”, amounted to blatant political persecution.


Another Social Democrat, Faizullo Zanjarbekov, who is a regional assembly member in the southeastern province of Badakhshan, also face criminal charges.


Speaking at a March 14 press conference, Zoirov said the lawsuits “resemble the Stalinist repressions of 1937”. His remarks appear all the more harsh since up until mid-2003, he worked as an adviser to President Rahmonov.


In the last two weeks, there has been a spate of criticism on state-controlled television and in the press aimed at discrediting both the Social Democrats and the other opposition parties. The Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper, for example, published an open letter from an independent journalist who signed himself “F. Sanginov”, describing the opposition appeal against the ballot result as “hysteria, stage-managed ably and cynically from outside our country”.


Zoirov told IWPR that he has failed to establish the true identity of the letter’s author, and that such articles are “no more than an attempt to manipulate public opinion”.


He insisted that the right of public assembly was fundamental to any democratic society, and that he would go ahead with plans to hold demonstrations, saying, “A precedent needs to be created.”


The furore surrounding the Social Democrats has divided the opposition, with some coming out in support of the call for protest action, and others holding back and seeking a negotiated solution.


Since the five-year civil war was brought to a negotiated end in 1997, transforming the IRP and Democratic Party from a guerrilla force into a legal political opposition, all sides in the political process have tended to steer clear of public showdowns for fear of opening up old wounds.


The conflict began in 1992 with rival sides holding demonstrations in Dushanbe, and F. Sanginov deftly alluded to the legacy of conflict in his open letter, “We have been through this we will never again allow our lives to be played with.”


The IRP – Central Asia’s only mainstream Islamic political force – has proved exceptionally cautious about casting itself in the role of rabble-rouser, and has decided not to take part in any demonstrations, although its deputy leader Muhiddin Kabiri promised “our moral support” for the protesters.


The Communists, traditionally positioned closer to the authorities than other opposition parties, have also been shaken. Party leader Shodi Shabdolov came under fire from branch members in Dushanbe and in the southern region of Kulyab, the stronghold of President Rahmonov.


“By signing the statement [February 28 petition by opposition parties] without consulting the party structure in Dushanbe, [Shabdolov] has… demonstrated egotistical, wilful behaviour, weakened the party organisationally, undermined its authority and in the end, might lead to its collapse,” said a statement from the city branch.


Analysts in Tajikistan believe the authorities have encouraged rank-and-file Communist members to distance themselves from the opposition movement.


And they predict more trouble for the rest of the opposition, which lacks the unity or public support to stand up to an increasingly assertive regime.


Gulnora Amirshoeva is an IWPR editor and Akbar Sharifi an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.


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