Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Islamic Defeat in Tajikistan

The Islamic opposition fails to become a credible political force after disastrous election results
By IWPR

Tajikistan's Islamic opposition is licking its political wounds after suffering a crushing defeat in the republic's first parliamentary elections since the end of its five-year civil war.


Against a grim backdrop of terrorist attacks and widespread intimidation, the Party for Islamic Revival in Tajikistan (PIRT) polled just under 7.5 per cent of the vote whilst its main ally, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT), failed to gain a single seat.


The elections for the lower chamber of the Tajik parliament (Majlisi Namoyandagon) were one of the key stipulations in the 1997 peace agreement which ended the civil war. The treaty ruled that both the outlawed parties - which had fought against government forces - should be allowed to take part in the polls.


However, the Islamic opposition's hopes of becoming a major political force in Central Asia's poorest republic were dashed when the Popular Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), led by President Emomali Rakhmonov, swept to victory with a 65 per cent majority. The Communist Party came a respectable second with just under 21 per cent of the vote.


The poor election showing is the latest in a series of setbacks for PIRT, which is committed to building an Islamic state in Tajikistan.


Legalised in September 1999, the party had little time to prepare for its electoral campaigns. November's presidential race saw major divisions open up in the PIRT ranks over the choice of a suitable candidate. Some party members, headed by Deputy Premier Khoja Akbar Turajonzoda, even supported the candidacy of President Rakhmonov.


The party has also suffered from the low profile of its candidates. According to the terms of the 1997 peace deal, 30 per cent of senior posts in the Tajik government bureaucracy were allotted to PIRT leaders. This meant that the party's best-known figures, with the exception of its chairman, Said Abdullo Nuri, were excluded from the parliamentary race.


After this month's election results were announced, PIRT promptly called for international mediators such as the UN and OSCE to examine the way the polls were conducted.


The elections have been overshadowed by controversy and violence since early February when President Rakhmonov put the republic's security forces on red alert.


On February 2, seven people were killed and 20 wounded when a bomb exploded on a Dushanbe bus. Five days later, Deputy Premier Turadjonzoda, one of PIRT's leaders, was attacked as he drove home in a government motorcade.


On February 16, deputy security minister and PDPT candidate Shamsullo Jobirov was killed during an assassination attempt on Dushanbe mayor Makhmadsaid Ubaidullaev, a leading member of the ruling party. Five people have been arrested and charged with the shooting, Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported on March 1.


The attacks are thought to have been staged by armed groups who oppose a peaceful solution to political differences in Tajikistan. These groups draw their supporters from both Islamic factions and government allies who fought on opposite sides during the civil war. They claim to have been deliberately sidelined by the 1997 peace agreement and the subsequent division of power.


Other outbreaks of violence were triggered by aggressive election campaigns waged by the political parties themselves. Two policemen were killed when PIRT bodyguards opened fire with automatic weapons during a meeting with voters in the Matchin region of the Leninabad oblast. The gunmen, who were members of PIRT leader Said Abdullo Nuri's entourage, have since been arrested.


Several candidates complained of unfair pressure from political rivals. Safarmad Kurbanov, deputy candidate for the South Kulyab district, appeared on local TV to announce that he was bowing out of the electoral race after receiving repeated threats of violence.


The sweeping victory of the PDPT came as no surprise. Boasting a membership of 80,000 (10,000 more than the Communist Party), the PDPT ranks include the heads of regional and municipal administrations across the republic - a factor which gave the party a huge advantage in the election campaign.


The PDPT credits itself with bringing peace to Tajikistan after a bloody civil war which claimed tens of thousands of lives. Over the last few years, a number of Communist Party members have switched allegiance to the PDPT, including President Rakhmonov himself.


The results of the Majlisi Namoyandagon polls are likely to set the tone for the March 23 elections, when the parties will vie for seats in the upper chamber. The elections will be followed by the first joint session of the new legislative body, planned for April.


Khurshed Abdullaev is a pseudonym for a Tajik journalist working in Khojand, north Tajikistan.


More IWPR's Global Voices