Tajiks' Election Choices Already Limited

The main opposition parties have dropped out of the race, and the few remaining candidates have no chance against the current president.

Tajiks' Election Choices Already Limited

The main opposition parties have dropped out of the race, and the few remaining candidates have no chance against the current president.

Campaigning is officially under way for Tajikistan’s presidential ballot in a month’s time, but there is little chance of a dynamic election race since three major opposition parties are not putting forward candidates.



Few doubt that President Imomali Rahmonov will win the November 6 ballot after 14 years in power. His People’s Democratic Party, PDP, dominates parliament although two others, the Communist Party and the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, have a handful of seats between them, and there are five more parties outside the legislature.



Three of the main opposition parties including the IRP have backed away from contesting the landmark November 6 election because they see little chance of success.



Many say they are in no position to compete because the Rahmonov regime has marginalised them and harassed and detained leading members. But critics say they have failed to build support among the electorate, and a boycott offers them a convenient excuse to avoid humiliating defeat.



Opposition parties contested the 2005 parliamentary election separately, but worked cohesively in an umbrella group pressing for fair election practices. Earlier in 2006, there was talk of forming a broad election coalition to field one or more candidates for the presidency, but the effort dissipated.



At least one true opposition figure - Mirhusein Narziev of the Socialist party - is planning to contest the election, along with Rahmonov and five other candidates who are seen either as little threat or as stalking horses for the regime.



Whatever the opposition does, IWPR enquiries around the country suggest that voters remain naturally averse to any risk nine years after the end of a bloody civil war, and few see any viable alternative to the incumbent Rahmonov.



A CLEAR RUN FOR THE PRESIDENT



Rahmonov has been head of state since late 1992 and was elected president in 1994. Re-elected in 1999, he changed the constitution to give himself seven years in office instead of five. That should have been his last term, but in 2003 a national referendum removed the constitutional limitation to allow him another two shots at the job, which could leave him in place until 2020.



Previous presidential elections saw some fairly serious challengers disqualified. This time round, there is no weighty candidate apart from the president.



Rahmonov was formally put forward as a candidate when the PDP held a party congress on September 23.



A few days earlier, he had toyed with journalists, telling them he had not decided whether to give it another go.



“It’s no longer the early Nineties, and there are many talented young people in the country,” said the president.



MAJOR OPPOSITION FORCES DUCK OUT



Unlike Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, there are still real political parties in Tajikistan, and the most serious opposition players could have been expected to field candidates, jointly or separately. That has not happened - they have accepted defeat before the start of campaigning.



Of the opposition parties, the IRP stands out as Central Asia’s only legal Islamic party, as Tajikistan’s main opposition group, and as the third most electable political force after the PDP and Communists.



Earlier this year, the IRP indicated that it would probably run but had not decided on the right tactics. But on September 25, the party decided that it would not after all be fielding a candidate. Unlike some other parties, the IRP is not boycotting the election exercise as a whole - it wants to send election monitors.



Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri said part of the reason for withdrawing was “the absence of clear legislation governing elections, and also the lack of trust between the main political forces taking part”.



He also suggested that the party’s Islamic nametag could make it a liability for the country’s reputation abroad.



“In recent election campaigns, it was apparent that a number of politicians were deliberately portraying the situation to make it seem that all of the country’s successes came from the development of [secular] democracy, and all its problems came from the dissemination of religious ideas,” he said.



During the civil war, the IRP was the major driving force in the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, a guerrilla force of Islamists and others that operated out of bases in Afghanistan and battled the Rahmonov regime until a 1997 peace deal that was brokered by Russia, Iran and the United Nations.



As part of the peace arrangements, the IRP was accepted into the political mainstream and was awarded a quota of government posts. The party has distanced itself from radical Islamic theology of groups such as the outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir.



However, in elections since 1997, the IRP has failed to broaden its appeal among voters, many of whom remain suspicious of its Muslim identity and its association with certain southern and eastern parts of the country. While the party has steered clear of open attacks on the Rahmonov administration, the authorities have clipped the IRP’s wings by arresting and harassing activists.



Of the other opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party are divided and in disarray. Each has a schismatic faction fielding a presidential candidate while the old guard is boycotting the election. The Social Democrats are not standing, either.



The main Democratic Party faction led by longstanding party leader Mahmudruzi Iskandarov announced on September 24 that it was refusing to take part in the ballot, because current electoral legislation was so flawed as to preclude a fair, transparent or democratic vote.



At the party congress which took the questions, delegates agreed that the election result was a foregone conclusion so it was pointless standing.



“The institutions of state will use every method to achieve victory for one person,” said a statement issued by the congress, referring to Rahmonov.



However, a dissenting faction calling itself Vatan (Homeland) led by Masud Sobirov emerged earlier this year, and on September 17 said its deputy chairman Tabarali Ziyoev would be running for the presidency.



The Tajik justice ministry, which is responsible for registering political parties, had so far recognised Iskandarov’s faction as the legal one - even though he was sentenced to 23 years imprisonment in 2005 on charges of corruption and terrorism. His conviction was seen by many as a way of getting rid of a powerful figure who had fallen out with Rahmonov earlier in the year.



Members of the Iskandarov faction believe that although they are still the official party, the creation of a rival group was engineered by figures within the regime.



“Those behind this faction sense that they are backed by an enormous power, which will support them even when they are in breach of the law and the party’s statute,” said the Democrat’s branch chief in Dushanbe Rajabi Mirzo.



Rahmatullo Valiev, the Democrats’ deputy chairman and de facto leader in Iskandarov’s absence, suggested that Vatan was being backed “directly or indirectly” by the governing PDP.



In a surprise move, the justice ministry reversed its position on September 29 and decreed that Vatan was a legitimate party, with Sobirov as its leader. Iskandarov’s party was struck off the list.



A ministry official explained the volte-face by saying Vatan was operating in accordance with the Democratic Party’s own rules.



The Iskandarov faction issued a statement on October 1 denouncing the decision as “totally illegal”.



Sobirov also succeeded in getting the culture ministry to suspend publication of the party newpaper, Adolat, which is presently controlled by his rivals. He said it would resume once the “internal dispute” had been sorted out within the party.



Another opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, announced it too was boycotting the vote on September 24. The party is relatively small, but carries some weight because of its leader Rahmatullo Zoirov, a former adviser to President Rahmonov on constitutional law who is now one of his most vocal critics.



Zoirov’s parting of the ways with the president was over the 2003 referendum which changed the constitution to allow Rahmonov two more terms in office, and the party continues to argue that the change was unlawful and that the upcoming election is therefore invalid.



In announcing the boycott, Zoirov said elections in Tajikistan are now controlled entirely by the government with scant regard for the law.



“In formal terms, a multi-party system does exist, but it has not translated into political pluralism,” he said. “Elections [here] are not a demonstration of the people’s will.”



While welcoming the IRP’s decision to stand aside, Saifullo Safarov, the deputy director of the presidential Strategic Studies Centre, is dismissive of the other groups’ refusal to take part.



“The election boycott by other parties is just a way of absolving them of responsibility for assuming a greater role in society,” he told IWPR.



SOCIALISTS AND COMMUNISTS WILL STAND



The Socialists are in a similar position to the Democrats, having divided into two opposing camps in December 2004, when Abduhalim Gafforov and Kurbon Vosiev convened a special congress to expel Mirhusein Narziev as party leader.



The justice ministry quickly recognised Gafforov as the new leader, while Narziev and other opposition figures claimed that the coup was a plot to undermine the party ahead of the February 2005 parliament election.



“The government is doing everything to weaken the opposition,” a member of the Narziev faction told IWPR recently. “They are counting on Gafforov. He is their man.”



Narziev continues to lead his own faction, and both he and Gafforov have been put forward as presidential candidates by their respective supporters.



“We intend to submit our [application] documents to the justice ministry, the Central Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court,” said Narziev.



Somewhere between the opposition and the pro-government camp stands the Communist Party, which has decided to field its leader Ismail Talbakov as a candidate.



The Communists have five seats in parliament and claim a membership of 45,000, but this support is rooted in an older generation who look back fondly to the Soviet era, and it will wane over time. Politically, the party has avoided confrontation with Rahmonov and the PDP.



Kuybek Oshurbekov, the Communists’ deputy leader in the southeastern Badakhshan region, told IWPR, “Our goal is not to win, but to come second after Rahmonov.”



MINOR PARTIES OFFER SIDESHOW



As well as Rahmonov, the Communists’ Talbakov and the two Socialist rivals, two more candidates have emerged so far: the Agrarian Party’s leader Amirkul Karakulov, and Olimjon Boboev, who heads the Party of Economic Reforms.



Neither man is well known as a politician - Karakulov is deputy head of the Academy of Agrarian Sciences, and Boboev rector of the Transport Institute - and it remains unclear whether they will be able to gather the 160,000 signatures a presidential hopeful needs in order to be accepted by the Central Electoral Committee.



Both parties are small, and were only founded late last year. The speed with which the justice ministry registered them suggested that they were government creations designed to create the appearance of political pluralism.



LIMITED CHOICE FOR VOTERS - BUT DO THEY WANT MORE?



Voting patterns in Tajikistan are still informed to an extent by distinct regional divisions, which were entrenched during the civil war.



The south of the country - the Hatlon region - is the heartland of the PDP and Rahmonov. A majority of people here whom IWPR interviewed in an unscientific poll of voters’ intentions said they would back the incumbent.



The south saw some of the bitterest fighting during the early, intense phase of the conflict, in which militias allied with politicians like Rahmonov were pitted against groups supporting the Islamists and then UTO. That legacy has left the IRP with pockets of support here, while most other areas of the south are PDP bastions.



According to independent journalist Ahmad Ibrohimov, the PDP and the IRP are the only active political forces in the region.



“It seemed to me that the only real competition would be between the candidates of these two parties. Personally, I’d like to see IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri as a presidential candidate, but they have refused to take part in the election. People in Tajikistan just regard the Islamists as mullahs,” he said.



Many voters said they were unfamiliar with the other candidates.



“The local branches of other parties barely function in the regions, and they do not campaign. And even the few members that they do have express gratitude to Rahmonov. The opposition has neither resources nor a political track-record,” said Sukhrobshoh Farrukhshoev, a resident of Kurghon-Tepa.



Although Rahmonov’s southern-backed administration emerged from Soviet rule in Tajikistan, the republic was traditionally governed not by the south but by the north, its economic powerhouse. Despite attempts by northern politicians to claw back power in the Nineties, the southerners have remained in control and the north - Soghd region - is largely excluded from government.



Many people here said they would choose the incumbent either through inertia or because they could not see a better option.



“I can only vote for the current president,” said Tahmina Ubaidullaeva from the Ganch district, explaining that given the choice she would have gone for the IRP or Social Democrats, if they had not ruled themselves out.



Dilrabo Zohirova, who lives in the north’s administrative centre Khujand, said she did not know the other candidates, but even if she did she feared they would be worse. “If a new president comes to power, another ten years will go by while he provides for himself and his relatives, and only then will he start thinking about the development of the state,” she told IWPR.



Political analysts interviewed by IWPR said that many voters were apathetic and would choose the easiest option. An example of this is Shoira Pochoeva of Khujand, who said she would let her husband decide who she should vote for.



In the same city, though, another resident had a positive reason for not exercising his vote. Mirzorahmat Pulatov plans to cross all the names out on the ballot paper, “Then my conscience will be clean.”



Badakhshan, a remote and sparsely populated high mountain region in the southeast of the country, has tended to remain at some distance from political ferment in the rest of the country.



Boymamad Alibakhshev, a political analyst in the region, said there was no alternative to the president. “Many people regarded Iskandarov as a rival, but he did not meet these expectations,” he said.



Like many voters in Badakhshan, Alibakhshev stressed the importance of economic development for the region.



“Rahmonov is well known internationally and has great experience. He builds strategic facilities, roads and hydroelectric power stations, and in years to come these projects will earn serious money,” he said. “So Rahmonov should remain president for another term to complete all these projects.”



Taigunshoh Musofirshoev, a lecturer at the university in Khorog, the region’s main town, cited the president’s role in opening up Badakhshan’s communications with the rest of the world. The region has poor road connections with the rest of Tajikistan, but work is under way to improve these and create better trade links with neighboring China.



“At present, there is no alternative to Rahmonov,” he concluded.



Saodat Asanova is IWPR country director in Tajikistan. Gulnora Amirshoeva and Madina Saifiddinova are IWPR contributors in Dushanbe and Khujand, respectively.
Support our journalists