Tajik Islamic Party Slowly Sidelined

Mainstream religious group failing to make headway in politics despite efforts to modernise and grow.

Tajik Islamic Party Slowly Sidelined

Mainstream religious group failing to make headway in politics despite efforts to modernise and grow.

A year before elections are due in Tajikistan, the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, the only political group holding parliamentary seats in Central Asia, is finding it impossible to broaden its constituency.

In part, this is due to the limited appeal of Islamic ideology as well as the IRP’s history as an armed opposition force during the 1992-97 civil war. However, analysts say the party is also hampered by the obstructions placed in the way of political groups other than the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, of President Imomali Rahmon.

With just over 30,000 members, the IRP is the third largest party in Tajikistan, but it was won only two seats in the legislature in the last election, held in 2005. In April, it lost one of these when Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda stepped down on health grounds.

The proportional representation system means that parties field a list of candidates in elections, so the IRP argued that Muhammadali Hayit, the man ranked third after party leader Muhiddin Kabiri and Himmatzoda, should move up and fill the seat. But the Central Electoral Commission refused to sanction this, citing a law that says members of parliament cannot be replaced if they resign with less than a year to go before elections. It refused to back down even when the IRP objected that this rule applies to seats allocated to independents, not to those that are filled from party lists.

According to party leader Kabiri, the loss of the seat does not make much difference. “All in all, it does not particularly change the situation and [would not] even if there were three or four deputies in parliament,” he said.

Even so, the difficulties the IRP has faced in trying to reclaim the second seat reflects the declining ability of this once powerful force to maintain, still less improve, its political standing.

Rahmatullo Zoirov, who heads a smaller opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, says it is hard for political groups to contest elections as everything is stacked against them.

The fact that political parties are not represented on election commissions means they have no way of knowing how the ballot has been conducted, and therefore “regardless of how many votes you [as a party] have got, in the event it will not be reflected on the protocol [document],” said Zoirov.

As another example of the difficulties facing opposition parties, Zoirov cited the 1,700 US dollar non-refundable deposit that candidates have to pay in order to stand. This is a massive amount for a country that is the poorest in Central Asia.

Tajik electoral legislation, he said, “places all the cards in the hands of the government apparatus and obviously the election commissions.”

(For a report on the campaign to do away with the deposit, see Tajik Opposition Campaigns for Fairer Election Rules, RCA No. 576, 08-May-09.)

In Zoirov’s opinion, the PDP has a monopoly hold on Tajik politics. With 52 of the 63 seats in the lower house of parliament, the party benefits from a nationwide membership of 100,000-plus, proximity to power and resources, and the expectation that national and local government officials will join as a matter of course.

The only other group represented in parliament, apart from the IRP, is the Communist Party, which won four seats in the last election.

In next February’s ballot, political parties will compete for 22 seats in based on proportional representation, and will also have a chance to win some of the remaining 41 seats for which individual candidates are directly elected on a constituency basis.

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 mandatory quota of government posts.

In the immediate post-war years, political analyst Parviz Mullojonov explains, “Its influence… was immeasurably greater [than now] as the UTO had armed groups under its control and the government was forced to take its leaders’ views into account every step of the way.”

These days, Mullojonov says, “As a purely political force whose [armed] groups were disarmed back in 1999, the IRP is no longer viewed as an equal partner by the Tajik government. Therefore its ability to influence those in power, and affect the way important decisions are taken has been reduced substantially, and continues to decrease with every year that passes.”

This has happened despite the IRP’s efforts to refashion itself into a political modernist force, setting up branches across the country and recruiting more and more new members.

“Today the IRP is a fully-pledged political party that has accomplished the process of building itself up in a shorter space of time than any other public association in Tajikistan,” said Mullojonov. “Paradoxically… its political influence on the ground is growing, but at government level it is gradually disappearing.

“The main reason for this paradoxical situation is that the Tajik political system isn’t transparent and there is no mechanism for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. The authorities have stopped taking the opposition seriously and listening to it.”

Mullojonov believes IRP leaders are partly to blame as they did not secure the right to maintain their own media outlets as part of the peace deal. “It’s perfectly logical that now they’re having problems getting access to electronic media – if they didn’t get it at the end of the Nineties when they were still to be reckoned with, under current circumstances there’s no way they will get this.”

Interviewed by IWPR, Kabiri acknowledged that lack of media access was a problem.

“I can say on behalf of my party that we are quite active. What’s also true is that the voters, the electorate know very little about this,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do to earn the voters’ confidence, and thank God the dynamics are positive – for example, we have 100 people joining us every month.”

Kabiri addressed a charge that has often been levelled against the IRP – that it has been insufficiently critical of government policies in the interests of maintaining its position.

“We have always sought compromise, and put aside our party interests in the national interest,” he said.

Analysts say that despite serious attempts to modernise and widen its geographical scope from its traditional rural heartland, the IRP is always held back by its image as a religious party.

Kabiri says women now account for 46 per cent of the party’s members, while Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, who heads the IRP’s research department, says the party now draws in intellectuals, civil servants and businessmen – the latter also helping to fund activities. Another important source of contributions, he said, was the large population of Tajiks working abroad who send money back home.

The regional colouring of the civil war meant that the IRP long found it difficult to win trust anywhere outside the opposition strongholds in the mountain valleys of eastern Tajikistan and around Qurghonteppa in the southwest of the country. These days, figures cited by Saifullozoda suggest that half the party’s total members live in Soghd province in the north of the country, which would previously have been unthinkable.

Saifullozoda insists the party’s theological principles remain core values.

“It’s an objective fact that our party fits with the religious interests of people,” he said.

According to Mullojonov, though, the message is too restricted to bring wider popular appeal, suggesting the IRP will not gain much ground in next year’s election.

“The IRP party’s main problem at the moment is that its ideology remains somewhat one-dimensional. By focusing on problems of a religious nature while, practically ignoring social and economic problems, the IRP won’t be able to act as a party with nationwide appeal,” he said. “Against the backdrop of the current [economic] crisis, only those political parties that focus on the problems that worry ordinary citizens, in other words welfare, the economy and employment, can attain nationwide standing.”

Both Kabiri and Saifullozoda admitted that the party did not have a formulated set of economic and social policies that it would implement if it ever came to power.

“Only the ruling party has the right to implement its programme as it has national and state resources and public money at its disposal,” said Kabiri.

IRP leaders are always at pains to stress that theirs is very much a Tajik party and that it has no truck with extremist groups of foreign origin like Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose activists are frequently arrested and jailed. The Tajik government sees these groups as a threat to secular nature of the state in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

By contrast the IRP declares support for the Tajik constitution, avoids foreign influence, and draws its funding from membership fees and local contributions.

“Our political platform is that of a centrist party, and radical and extremist ideas cannot infiltrate our ranks,” said Saifullozoda.

He said the party put a lot of efforts into working with young people and keeping them on the straight and narrow when they are at risk of being drawn into Islamic extremist groups. “We give them sound advice so that they turn away from the wrong direction,” he said.

Analyst Rashidghani Abdullo says the existence of the IRP as a legitimate political group represented in parliament is good for Tajikistan’s image, since it indicates a degree of pluralism not found elsewhere

IRP leaders are adamant that there can be no return to the bad old days of conflict. They were therefore alarmed when, in an annual state-of-the-nation address on April 15, President Rahmon urged political groups in Tajikistan not to succumb to the influence of “foreign backers”, and appeared to point the finger at the IRP by saying similar errors had been made during the civil war era.

In response, Kabiri told IWPR that “I can say in all certainty that we are not the danger factor the president is talking about….The question arises why this has become a problem a year before the next election, and why the president felt it necessary to talk about it in his address to parliament.”

Daler Gufronov is a correspondent for the Asia-Plus news agency. Aslibegim Manzarshoeva is an IWPR-trained contributor in Dushanbe.

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