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Tajikistan: Centrists on The March
Plans by a new opposition party to launch a mainstream newspaper next month appear to signal the start of a bid to challenge the government.
The Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, SDPT, announced its intention to launch a mainstream paper shortly after getting officially registered with the Tajik authorities in December last year.
The Social Democrats have been denied the right to register since 1999 on the basis of alleged irregularities in their membership list. They were only able to achieve official status when President Emomali Rakhmonov made an appeal on their behalf to the justice ministry late last year.
According to observers, the need for Rakhmonov's intervention has highlighted the enduring inadequacies of Tajikistan's nascent multi-party democracy.
The launch will bring to three the number of major publications with obvious party affiliations - the other two belong to the ruling party, the Popular Democratic Party's, PDPT, and the main Islamist opposition group.
Social Democrat press secretary Marat Mamadshoev told IWPR that the new newspaper, to be launched in February, emphasises his party's intention to play a major role in Tajik politics. The party says it has attracted some 4,500 members so far, claiming to draw much of its support from the intelligentsia, educated professionals and women.
Of the six officially recognised political parties in Tajikistan, it is the PDPT - which is led by Rakhmonov - that effectively runs the country.
The Party for Islamic Revival constitutes the main opposition to the PDPT, but since the end of the civil war, it has had difficulty winning over voters who believe a moderate, non-religious government is their country's best hope for reconstruction.
According to Rakhmatillo Zoyirov, the chairman of the Social Democrats, his party has had to wait four years for official recognition because of the PDPT's efforts to preserve its monopoly in the face of a new, secular and popular political grouping. He told IWPR that the ministry of justice had rejected his party's repeated attempts to register on the dubious grounds that its membership list did not match up to regulations.
Speaking in early 2002, Deputy Minister of Justice Rustam Mengliev told a press conference "there were twenty people included in the list of members who did not confirm their membership of the party". According to Tajik law, a new party has to present the justice ministry with a list of 1,000 members in order to be registered.
SDPT spokesman Mamadshoev told IWPR that the law must be changed so that it doesn't automatically work against new parties. He believes that until a party has been registered, it is more reasonable to speak in terms of its supporters, rather than expecting it to produce a list of active members.
According to Zoyirov, the authorities' efforts to confirm the names on the membership list were also marred by irregularities. He told IWPR of how, in some regions of the country, membership checks were not performed by ministry of justice employees but by officials from the security service and the state prosecutor. As a result, some of those on the list were intimidated into withdrawing their names, leading in turn to the rejection of the party's registration bid.
The Social Democrats' long quest for political legitimacy began in 1998, when the party was known by the name "Adolat va Tarrakiet" or Justice and Development. The party's registration certificate took nearly a year to arrive, only to be revoked six months later because of supposed irregularities in the membership list.
In the interim period though, it had made clear its willingness to oppose the government by challenging the ruling party's stance on proposed amendments to the Tajik constitution. "It seems that our actions scared some groups of officials. They thought, 'We register them today and tomorrow they will come out with anti-government slogans," recalled Zoyirov.
The party renamed itself the Social Democrats and met regularly to ponder the repeated rejections of its registration efforts. At the latest such assembly, on October 27, 2002, it sent an open letter to Rakhmonov, appealing to him to recognise its right to register under the Tajik constitution.
Rakhmonov's intervention on behalf of the opposition group may not be entirely altruistic. SDPT leader Zoyirov is held in high regard by foreign organisations active in Tajikistan, particularly the OSCE.
Indeed, last year Rakhmonov offered Zoyirov the job of senior adviser on legal issues, a move many saw as an attempt to co-opt and weaken the respected lawyer-turned-leader.
Rustam Samiev, an independent analyst, points out that Rakhmonov also made a similar offer to Kurbon Vosiev, the leader of the opposition Socialist Party. Vosiev is now the president's adviser on social movements and politics, and has more or less given up his opposition role.
However, in direct contrast to Vosiev, Zoyirov still actively leads the SDPT despite having taken up Rakhmonov's offer of a job as legal adviser. Explaining why he took the job, he said, "Firstly, in this post I can serve the interests of the society and state in the areas of legislature and politics. Secondly, I made it very clear in the beginning that I would not be leaving my party or changing my political views."
Zoyirov believes the parliamentary elections of 2005 will produce three major political parties. His party could profit from the willingness of existing opposition groups to join it in coalition. Mamadshoev expects the Social Democrats to win four to five seats in the next election.
Meanwhile, another new party, Vakhdat, or Unity, is preparing for registration. Although it has yet to submit its documents to the ministry of justice, observers fear it will not find official recognition any easier than the Social Democrats.
The UN chief in Tajikistan, Ivo Petrov, highlights why it is essential that all political groupings can take part in the coming elections. "An election where there are no alternatives is not election, but merely an appointment."
Zafar Abdullaev is an independent journalist in Tajikistan
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