Tajik Election Deprives Opposition of Voice

Creating an all-loyal parliament may look like the easy option, but it shuts off channels for articulating popular resentment.

Tajik Election Deprives Opposition of Voice

Creating an all-loyal parliament may look like the easy option, but it shuts off channels for articulating popular resentment.

After a parliamentary election in Tajikistan which deprived the opposition of its tiny handful of seats, the legislature has ceased to be a place where popular concerns can be aired.

The election authorities announced early results on March 2, a day after the vote. The Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP) and the Communist Party, which won two seats each in the 2010 election, were told that they had failed to pass the five per cent threshold needed to get in. The commission said they polled 2.3 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the vote, respectively.

As expected, the People’s Democratic Party of President Imomali Rahmon won with just over 65 per cent of the vote. The rest of the 22 seats in the lower chamber elected by proportional representation (the other 41 are elected by the first-past-the-post system) will be divided among other pro-government groups – the Agrarian Party, which came second with 11.8 per cent, the Economic Reforms Party with 7.6 per cent and the Socialist Party with 5.5 per cent. These are significant percentages for parties that maintained a low profile in campaigning. (See Tajikistan's Lacklustre Election Campaign.)

Election monitors deployed by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said the vote “took place in a restricted political space and failed to provide a level playing field for candidates”. In a statement, they said they had received credible reports of harassment and obstruction targeting opposition parties, unbalanced coverage by state media, with negative reporting on the IRP in particular, an absence of genuine political debate, and cases where voters were put under pressure.

 At a March 2 press conference, OSCE observer mission chief Miklós Haraszti said the conduct of this election was worse than previous ones.

Both the Islamic and Communist parties believe that they were robbed of the share of the vote they would have been avoided in a fair count. Neither, however, plans to fight the election results in the courts – the overall sense is of fatigue. Two other opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the Social Democrats, also failed to pass the threshold.

The IRP was the dominant force in the 1992-97 civil war against Rahmon’s administration, which ended in a peace deal in which the opposition disarmed and its leaders were granted a share in government. The party retains a loyal membership of some 40,000, of which 40 per cent are women.

This election marks the end of a long process of pushing the IRP out of all positions of power. In recent months it has complained of mounting harassment and smears. (See Tajikistan's Islamic Opposition Under Pressure.)

 The IRP described the election as “not transparent and not free”, and said the absence of legitimate channels for dissent in the shape of parliamentary parties could boost support for underground extremist forces.

“Those who conducted the election in this way must bear full responsibility for leaving the majority of young people disappointed with the state of democracy and rule of law and with political and social injustices. This could drive them towards extremism,” the party said in a statement.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, most Communists rebranded themselves as the People’s Democratic Party, with a new narrative but the same firm grip on power. The present Communist Party was left over as a minority force, but always represented in parliament.

Party leader Shodi Shabdolov says this election was a “farce” that was all about appointing legislators, not electing them. “I don’t know who was advising the president, but they didn’t think about the consequences,” he said.

In this election, the Communists could lay claim to two seats that were elected by the first-past-the-post system, but Shabdolov has refused to acknowledge either candidate as a party members. He says one was expelled late last year while the other was a member only in name.

A political analyst in Dushanbe who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that creating an entirely pliable parliament could be the first step towards changing the constitution to allow Rahmon – in power since 1992 – to run for yet another term, since his current one is supposed to be his last.

“This practice is widespread in post-Soviet countries… it is likely that they intend to introduce amendments designed to change the way the head of state is elected,” the analyst said. “The law states that the constitution can only be changed by referendum, but the authorities might opt for another route - that’s why they need a parliament to be in their pocket.”

“As for opposition parties,” he continued, “unfortunately they’ve been growing used to mounting pressure from government, but this election result still came as a shock to them. It’s a serious blow to their image.”

Alexei Malashenko, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, believes President Rahmon is copying the model of neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kazakstan whose leaders have concentrated all power in their hands. Interviewed by the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he pointed out that the civil war left Tajikistan a more fragmented country, so that method might not work so well.

“The president has made a mistake. The only way out for him is to further tighten the screws. And we know how tightening the screws can end in countries like that,” Malashenko said.

Malashenko says depriving the IRP from a role in decision-making is a particular mistake. He that IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri will not be able to prevent party members from gravitating towards a more radical position.

Mehrangez Tursunzoda is an IWPR journalist in Tajikistan.

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