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Tajik Islamic Party Seeks Election Partners

Party has large membership but realises it cannot go it alone.
By Lola Olimova
  • Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Hikmatullo Saifullozoda)
    Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan. (Photo courtesy of Hikmatullo Saifullozoda)

Tajikistan’s main opposition group, the Islamic Rebirth Party, is hoping to team up with others to field a joint candidate in this November’s presidential election, but it is proving hard to decide who that should be.

Although it has only two out of 63 seats in parliament, the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, has 42,000 members, making it the second-largest political force after President Imomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party, as well as Central Asia’s one and only legal Islamic party.

The IRP was the dominant force in a five-year armed insurrection against Rahmon’s administration, before a peace deal in 1997 that saw the opposition disarm its guerrillas and its politicians granted a share in government.

The party’s powerbase has traditionally been in rural areas of eastern and southern Tajikistan, but widespread public disillusionment with Rahmon’s two-decade rule is bringing it support from other constituencies like the emerging middle class.

In power since 1992, President Rahmon is likely to win re-election. Since several challengers would inevitably split the vote against him, the main opposition parties have been discussing the possibility of fielding a joint candidate.

To this end, the IRP, the Social Democrats and the Democratic Party met on July 2 to discuss forming an election bloc. But it quickly became apparent this would not be easy, as the Democrats announced they would be nominating their own candidate anyway.

It is not clear whether the other two will succeed in agreeing a candidate, and if so, whether they can find a strong enough figure to present a real challenge to Rahmon.

The IRP has by far the biggest membership of the three, but it might benefit from being in a broad coalition since some secular-minded voters might be put off by its Islamic tag.

The Social Democrats’ deputy chairman, Shokirjon Hakimov, says it would make sense for the IRP to agree to have someone from another party run for election in light of the increased nervousness about political Islam, a consequence of turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Speaking at a July 5 event in Moscow  to mark the anniversary of the 1997 peace accord, IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri said he did not wish to see a society divided into those who supported faith-based parties and others who did not.

Kabiri has made it clear he does not want to be selected as the joint opposition candidate, leaving it an open question who might fill the role.

The Social Democratic Party’s leader Rahmatillo Zoirov has put his own name forward. (See Tajik Opposition Plans Joint Candidate for more.)

Abdumalik Kadirov, IWPR’s country director in Tajikistan, attended the July 2 meeting on building an electoral coalition, and said he did not see much progress there.

“Judging by what was said at the meeting, the IRP is not keen to back Zoirov," he said.

According to Oinikhol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, Zoirov is well known among educated residents of the capital Dushanbe but would struggle to draw the rural vote. Hence the IRP is looking for a heavyweight with broad appeal.

"Zoirov is a very good lawyer but his party isn’t very influential,” Bobonazarova said. “He is more of a romantic whereas the IRP people are pragmatic.”

Dushanbe-based political analyst Nurali Davlatov predicted that any pact would be limited to the Social Democrats and the IRP.

He noted that other parties might not wish to be associated with the IRP as a result of a campaign against it that has been going on in the state media, with hints that the party could turn out to be a destabilising force.

This points to another reason for the IRP to seek to work with opposition groups – it has come under increasing pressure from the authorities over the last year.

In July 2012, the party’s branch head in the southeastern province of Badakhshan, Sabzali Mamadrizoev, disappeared and turned up dead three days later. His death followed an outbreak of violence in the region. (See Tajik Rebels Lay Down Arms in Badakhshan.)

Another party member in Badakhshan, Sherik Karamkhudoev, was jailed for 14 years this May, after being accused of taking part in the 2012 violence.

Several figures in the party have been the victims of unexplained assaults, most recently its deputy chairman Mahmadali Hayt this April. After international condemnation of that attack, the authorities launched an investigation, while denying any political subtext.

At a more mundane level, the party reports cases where local government officials have prevented it holding branch meetings, and pressured members to resign.

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, chief editor of the IRP’s newpaper Najot, said public-sector employees like teachers and doctors were being told to choose between their profession and their political allegiances.

He added, "If an IRP member is a farmer, they threaten to take away his [leased] land under various pretexts, such as that he isn’t cultivating it properly."

Saifullozoda said the number of people resigning from the party had increased as a result.

In a recent development, prayer-leaders at government-controlled mosques have questioned the need for a faith-based party, while clerics meeting President Rahmon on July 4 proposed banning the party from using “Islam” in its title.

The arrest of one opposition politician and attempts to extradite another show the risks facing anyone who takes on the administration.

Zayd Saidov was charged with embezzlement a month after setting up a new political party. He had said he would not be competing in this year’s election, unlike Umarali Quvvatov, now fighting extradition from Dubai after declaring he would run.

Lola Olimova is IWPR editor in Tajikistan.