Static Politics in Tajikistan

Election next spring will replicate the governing party’s dominant position, leaving only a few seats for its rivals.

Static Politics in Tajikistan

Election next spring will replicate the governing party’s dominant position, leaving only a few seats for its rivals.

The next parliamentary election in Tajikistan is still seven months away, but the outcome is already clear. Not only is it a near-certainty that the governing People’s Democratic Party, PDP, will win, but it is a safe bet to say the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, will come a distant second, followed by the Communists.

The two latter parties’ inability to gain on the PDP is partly because they lack its resources and access to media, compounded by electoral rules which they say are tilted against them.

However, some observers say that even if the playing field was levelled, neither the IRP nor the Communist Party would be able to gather a winning number of votes. As a result, Tajikistan’s multiparty democracy is stuck in a rut.

Opposition parties including the IRP, the Communists, and others which are not represented in parliament have been lobbying for improvements to the electoral system, thus far without success.

The Communists drafted a reform bill that proposed abolishing the non-returnable deposit candidates have to pay in order to stand. At 7,000 somonis, around 1,700 US dollars, opposition parties say the fee will prevent them fielding as many candidates as they could otherwise have done.

Other proposed changes include doubling the amount of free airtime assigned to political party broadcasts to one hour, and requiring local electoral commissions to include opposition party agents in the interests of transparency.

Parliament broke up for the summer without looking at the bill, so the review process will only start in October, by which time it may be too late to get any changes in place – if they are approved at all – before campaigning for the February election begins.

“If the proposals set out by the political parties are not taken into account, the forthcoming election will be marred by numerous violations in the same way that previous ones were,” said Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, which has no seats in parliament.

A total of eight political parties will contest 22 out of the 63 seats in the lower house of parliament, based on a proportional representation system. The remaining 41 seats are directly elected on a constituency basis, offering parties a chance to get more members into the legislature.

The PDP is in an unassailable position because its proximity to power gives it access to resources including media, and national and local government officials are expected to join as a matter of course. It currently has an absolute majority with 52 seats.

The Communists hold four seats while the IRP held two seats until April, when one of its deputies stepped down on health grounds.

Their poor showing does not reflect relative membership numbers – if the PDP has 100,000-plus members nationwide, the Communists have a respectable 50,000 and the IRP around 30,000.

Political analysts say the next election is very likely to preserve the status quo, so that the IRP and Communists will gain a handful of seats while the PDP sweeps the board.

Others like the Democratic Party, the Socialists and the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, did not make it past the five per cent threshold set for the 2005 ballot. Their chances in the next parliamentary contest remain slim.

The IRP and Communists both face difficulties in expanding constituencies that are somewhat restricted by their specific ideologies.

The IRP’s history as an armed opposition force during the 1992-97 civil war meant its original powerbase was in the opposition strongholds in the mountain valleys of eastern Tajikistan and around Qurghonteppa in the southwest of the country.

Under the terms of the peace deal which ended the war in 1997, the United Tajik Opposition, UTO – in which the IRP was the main player – disbanded its guerrilla army, and the Islamic party was legalised and granted a quota of government posts, although the number was eroded in subsequent years.

The party espouses Islamic values – the bulk of Tajikistan’s population is Sunni Muslim – but unlike illegal radical groups, it supports the current secular state structure.

The IRP’s past still means it has limited appeal in areas like Kulob in the south, the heartland of its wartime opponents – the administration of President Imomali Rahmon and the PDP.

However, party officials insist the party is reaching out to new supporters. These days, they say, half of its members live in Soghd province in the north of the country, which would previously have been unthinkable.

Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri says women now account for 46 per cent of the membership.

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, who heads the IRP’s research department, says the party now attracts intellectuals, civil servants and businessmen – the latter also helping to fund the party. Another important source of contributions, he says, is the large population of Tajiks working abroad who send money back home.

For more on the party, see Tajik Islamic Party Slowly Sidelined , (RCA No. 579, 05-Jun-09)

If the IRP has some potential for expanding its power-base, that is less the case with the Communists.

After independence in 1991, the bulk of the Soviet Communist Party in Tajikistan was effectively transformed into the present PDP, while the true believers were left as a small rump party.

The Communist Party appeal to a generation of over-50s who recall the Soviet period as a time of certainty, stability and better living standards than now.

As political analyst Parviz Mullojonov points out, these voters form a loyal and reliable support-base.

At the same time, the Communists’ particular appeal mean their voters are getting older, and are not being replaced by young people.

Mullojonov says the aging effect will not necessarily show itself in the 2010 ballot, when he says the party “has every chance of maintaining its current position in parliament [four seats], at the very least”.

The Communist Party’s long-term future looks bleaker than the IRP’s, though.

Analyst Qiyomiddin Sattori says that to the extent that there is any competition, it will be “between two groups, the PDP and the IRP. The Communists are no longer a rival.”

With so little scope for a turnaround in Tajik politics, analysts predict that any changes will be minor ones engineered by the authorities.

Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats, says, “The authorities are artificially creating a three-party system where there is room only for the PDP, IRP and the Communists.”

Mullojonov predicts that the authorities will seek to adjust the composition of parliament to suit themselves.

“They might try to limit the IRP to just one member, and adjust the number of Communist Party members either upwards or downwards,” he said. “They might even back a third, weaker party and help it get into the legislature, so as to make the new parliament look more presentable and improve its image.”

Another analyst, Rashidghani Abdullo, says the apparent pluralism of Tajikistan’s political system is designed to satisfy the international community that democratic mechanisms are in place, without actually relaxing the Rahmonov administration’s grip on power.

“The leaderships in post-Soviet countries are fundamentally oriented towards building strong states, but they understand they have to follow certain rules of the game with other influential states, particularly western ones,” he said. “So on the one hand, they allow elections to take place, but on the other, they strive to exert tight controls over the entire process.”

Lola Olimova is IWPR Tajikistan Editor; Nafisa Pisaredjeva is an IWPR-trained journalist and Talabsho Salomov is a reporter in Tajikistan.

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