Tajikistan's Disappearing Opposition

Critics say the government is already sidelining the competition even though the presidential election is a year away.

Tajikistan's Disappearing Opposition

Critics say the government is already sidelining the competition even though the presidential election is a year away.

Saturday, 12 November, 2005

With presidential elections still 12 months away, opposition members are accusing the ruling regime of mounting a campaign to eliminate potential rivals to the incumbent Imomali Rahmonov.

Rahmatillo Zoirov, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, told IWPR that pressure has recently increased on members and supporters of the party – so far the only opposition group to announce that it will field a candidate.

Zoirov, who was a legal adviser to the president but resigned over a controversial referendum in 2003, would not say whether he or someone else in the party would be standing. "It hasn't yet been decided who will represent the party," he said. "It's risky even to talk about it."

The president used the referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term, and has already declared himself a candidate for the election on November 6, 2006.

According to Zoirov, “During the parliamentary election in February this year, pressure on our members reached a peak, and… criminal and civil-law cases were fabricated. While it [pressure] eased up a bit over the summer, it is now on the increase again.”

The SDP won just 0.7 per cent of the vote according to the official election results, which many opposition members doubt are accurate. The clear winner was Rahmonov's People's Democratic Party.

He said SDP supporter and human rights activist Faizinisso Vahidova is the latest to be targeted. The prosecutor’s office in the northern Sogd region has charged her with forging her law diploma, and she is currently languishing in jail.

Observers insist the charges were politically motivated as a direct result of Vahidova’s membership of the SDP and her outspoken criticism of the Rahmonov government.

Two other SDP activists - former deputy candidate Nizomiddin Begmatov and Nasimjon Shukurov – this summer received jail terms 12 months and 18 months respectively for insulting a court officials in the Matcha district, also in the north of the country.

But it is not just the Social Democrats who have been targeted.

The Democratic Party was left without a leader when Mahmadruzi Iskandarov was sentenced in early October to 23 years in prison after being found guilty of terrorism, illegal possession of weapons and embezzlement of state funds. Opposition members claim the charges were fabricated and that they were only brought after Iskandarov indicated he would run against President Rahmonov.

The Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP – which finished third in the parliamentary poll - would normally be regarded as a strong player capable of producing a presidential candidate, but it too is currently leaderless, as chairman Sayed Abdullo Nuri is being treated in Germany for an undisclosed but serious illness.

The party is said to be looking for another leader, with acting head Muhiddin Kabiri viewed as a strong possibility.

“Many people are happy with him as a candidate [for the IRP leadership],” political analyst Sobirjon Sharipov told IWPR. “Both the Americans and the current authorities are counting on him - firstly because he is not a strong Islamist, and secondly because it’s unlikely he will insist on putting his name forward for the presidential election.”

According to Sharipov, the Socialist Party is unlikely to offer much opposition, either, as it continues to be riven with the internal divisions that prevented party members from even participating in the parliamentary election.

Zoirov has proposed that the opposition parties could increase their chances by putting up a single candidate against the current president. Though he has discussed the idea with rival parties, it remains to be seen whether the plan will come to fruition.

Not everyone in Tajikistan agrees that the country needs a change from Rahmonov, anyway. Businessman Abdusattor Gairatov was among several people interviewed by IWPR who would like to see the current president remain in power.

“Rahmonov already has a good grasp of major-league politics. He has already won at least some confidence from international organisations and financial institutions,” Gairatov told IWPR. “Furthermore, who can guarantee that a new president would be any better?”

A lecturer at Dushanbe university, Abdushukur Rahimov, is dismissive of both the IRP and the SDP leaderships.

“They already showed what they were like during the civil war,” he said, referring to the 1992-97 civil war which pitted the IRP and the Democrats against Rahmonov’s administration

“And what can the president’s former advisor Rahmatillo Zoirov offer us? Although he is competent, he's a long way from presidential rule. He doesn't have the grasp that a head of state needs. And the people will not go along with him now; he isn’t widely known. Perhaps Zoirov will be better prepared for the next presidential elections in seven years time.”

But there is considerable public dissatisfaction with the current government, given the state of the economy which has forced several hundred thousand Tajiks to seek work as migrant labour in Russia.

“What sort of leadership is this, if it can't provide the younger generation with work?” said pensioner Bakhtier Nasrullaev, whose six sons are in Russia.

Low wages, pensions and benefits affect much of the population, especially the most vulnerable. Safargul Ravshanova gets disability benefits amounting to just 12 soms, about four US dollars, every month, and says she has had to sell everything in her home just to feed herself.

“Now I don’t even have anything to sleep on. What will happen now, I don’t know,” she said.

Sharipov is sceptical that any of the political parties, in or out of government, have solutions to the economic crisis.

“The party programmes which they brought to the parliamentary election contained a lot of proud promises,” he said. “However, we have yet to experience any changes either from the parties that got into parliament, or from those that didn’t.

"They will make the same promises at the presidential election, but few people believe anything will change in the country.”

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