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

Islamists Shun Tajik Election with Eye to Future

Central Asia’s only Islamic party wants to reposition itself at a greater distance from the Tajik government, but without alienating anyone.
By Dadojan Azimov
A decision by Tajikistan’s leading opposition party to opt out of this November’s presidential election took many observers by surprise. While some analysts argue that the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, has made the wrong decision, others argue that it is a smart move to help the party deal with a change of leader and build more grassroots support.



Few observers see any chance that the IRP or any other party could defeat the incumbent president, Imomali Rahmonov, in the November 6 poll.



The IRP, the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia, announced its decision not to field a candidate after its leaders met on September 25. Earlier in the year, it had signalled that it would stand.



The new chairman, Muhiddin Kabiri, told IWPR the decision was taken for two main reasons, to do with the environment in which the election is taking place, and with the party’s wish not to stoke fears of an Islamist takeover in Tajikistan.



Current legislation governing the way elections are run is “imperfect”, he said, without elaborating.



After Tajikistan became independent in 1991, the IRP was engaged in a five-year armed conflict with the Rahmonov government, but a 1997 peace agreement brought it legitimacy and a quota of government jobs.



The party has been at pains to dissociate itself with radical Islam of the kind espoused by groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is outlawed in Tajikistan and operates covertly.



But Kabiri said the IRP’s political opponents had tried to brand it as a danger to the country’s secular system of government.



“There is a psychological factor - some people believe that having an Islamic party participate is a threat to democratic, secular values,” he said. “They say the Islamic factor scares off investors and hinders democratic development.”



With the IRP out of the race, that argument no longer holds water, said Kabiri.



“We’ll see how the democratic parties conduct the election without the Islamic factor, and whether they’ll be able to hold a fair and transparent ballot. It will show whether the Islamic factor hinders the holding of elections, or whether it was just an excuse to remove one’s opponents,” he said.



He added that as a former combatant side in the Tajik civil war, the IRP wanted to avoid giving the impression that it was in confrontation with the current government.



The IRP was also swayed by “the unfavourable international situation and the negative attitude towards Islam”, he said.



Kabiri stressed that the IRP had not come under any pressure from Rahmonov’s administration to pull out.



“We made this decision independently - and in fact it was against the wishes of the government, which wanted to see as many alternative candidates as possible,” he said.



Unlike the Social Democrats and the main wing of the Democratic Party, the IRP is not formally boycotting the election, and plans to monitor the vote.



Alexei Malashenko, an expert on political Islam at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, is sceptical of Kabiri’s claim. This decision was made “under pressure from the authorities, even if the IRP won’t admit it”, he said.



Malashenko sees the IRP’s decision as a tactical error because it could open the way for more vocal Islamic groups to seek power.



“It was a big mistake. If moderate leaders don’t take part in the political process, then radicals will do so. Islam needs to be part of the political establishment,” he said.



By contrast, Vitaly Naumkin, another Moscow-based Central Asia-watcher who heads of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Russia’s Institute of Oriental Studies, argues that the IRP had no need to prove its democratic credentials.



“The party is very respected and integrated into the government,” he said.



Naumkin believes the IRP wanted to avoid another humiliating defeat at the polls, as part of a strategy of building up support for the future.



Since rejoining the political process in 1997, the IRP has failed to capitalise on its position as the main opposition force, partly because its Islamic title and role in the civil war hinder it from winning new voters. In the last parliamentary election held in February 2005, the Islamic party won just two of the 63 seats in the legislature.



Now it has a free hand to reposition itself, according to Naumkin.



“This was a very intelligent move - it has shown that it is [a real] opposition party. Many people thought the party leadership sold out to the government after it signed the peace deal. This will help the party widen its social base, and win back people who were unhappy that it had become too much of a ‘party of state’,” he said.



Developing a more separate identity for the IRP will be good for democracy, too, said Naumkin, adding, “It is important that an opposition should be against the government, not identified with it.”



Kabiri was only appointed chairman in September following the death of leader Sayed Abdullo Nuri in early August. Nuri was an Islamic scholar who started out as a Soviet dissident, led the IRP though the civil war years and later the peace process, and exercised considerable moral authority over the party.



“Nuri was a leader with charisma,” said Malashenko. “The loss of a charismatic leader always brings about change. Nuri combined both the radical and moderate tendencies in the party.”



Kabiri is widely seen as a moderate and a moderniser, but there is continuity in the leadership change since he ran the party throughout Nuri’s months of illness. Malashenko views him as “the most intelligent and able leader the party has”.



“Judging by [IRP] statements, no major changes are planned,” said Zafar Abdullaev, director of the Avesta News Agency in Dushanbe. “The party will grow stronger because of the modernisation.”



Ilhom Narziev, a Dushanbe-based political analyst, said the IRP had a lot to play for, “The party has enormous potential in Tajikistan. The majority of residents practice Islam, and there is always a chance that dissatisfaction will express itself through Islam. Ultimately, its success will determined by its ability to integrate into a largely secular society.”



Narziev noted that the IRP was already focused on training its members and on using the internet and print media.



Naumkin said the party was also working to expand out of its traditional support-base in the valleys east of Dushanbe, partly by promoting charitable work.



“If the party relies on this strategy, then it will be able to expand out of its own region into the north and to the Pamirs [southeast Tajikistan],” he said.



Naumkin added that the IRP has a tough job ahead of it as it seeks to adopt a stronger line without alienating the government or the electorate.



“It has to attract the protest vote, and at the same time cooperate with the government in opposing [Islamic] extremists. It has to come up with a strategy to preserve its image as a moderate Islamic opposition party,” he said.



He also sees international implications in the success or failure of the IRP, “Tajikistan is important for the world as it serves as an example of normal cooperation between an Islamic party and the government.”



Dadojan Azimov is an IWPR intern in London.