Tajikistan's ghost democracy

Joanna Lillis
8 November 2006

The incumbent Tajik president has won a third seven-year term in an election denounced as a sham long before polls opened on the morning of 5 November 2006. Imomali Rakhmonov received 79.3% of the vote on a 91% turnout, the central electoral commission announced at a press conference in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, the next day.

Many observers were surprised at the relatively modest scale of victory for Rakhmonov, who has ruled this mountainous, landlocked central Asian state of around 6 million people since November 1992 (and was first elected president in November 1994).

After the election the OSCE emphasised the lack of choice offered to voters, and noted serious flaws in the electoral process. "The lack of any serious campaign and credible alternatives undermined this election to a degree that it did not provide an adequate test of Tajikistan's commitment for democratic elections", Kimmo Kiljunen, special coordinator of the OSCE short-term observer mission, told a press conference in Dushanbe.

Many voters seemed not to care, and in Dushanbe on polling day they sang Rakhmonov's praises. The view of teacher Izatullo Tagaynazarov was typical: "I voted for Rakhmonov. He's my favourite candidate... He deserves his place... He loves the people and respects everyone. He's given his whole life to his motherland."

Joanna Lillis is a freelance journalist based in Kazakhstan. She previously worked for nearly four years for BBC Monitoring in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Also by Joanna Lillis in openDemocracy:

"Kazakhstan's pre-election media war" (November 2005)

"Kazakhstan's political landslide" (December 2005)

"Death in Kazakhstan" (22 February 2006)

An opposition, just

After major opposition parties declined to take part, the election looked like a one-horse race from the start. In the event, four candidates were prepared to challenge Rakhmonov, who represented the ruling Hizbi Demokrati-Khalkii Tojikston (People's Democratic Party) - although none was able to establish meaningful public recognition.

Two of the parties fielding candidates - the Agrarian Party and the Party for Economic Reforms - were established only in 2005, and some suspected them from the start of being government-backed.

The Agrarians fielded academic Amir Karakulov, while the Party of Economic Reforms was represented by Olimjon Boboyev, head of the Institute of Transport. Although both he and his party were relative newcomers, Boboyev defeated the better-known Communist Party candidate and MP, Ismoil Talbakov, to clinch (albeit a distant) second place. 

The Socialist Party, which split in 2005, fielded Abduhalim Gaffarov, leader of the government-recognised rump movement; Gaffarov received the fewest votes. The leader of the other, non-recognised wing, Mirhuseyn Narziyev, accuses the government of manufacturing the split in a bid to consolidate its domination of the political scene.

Some analysts suggest that this field of mainly little-known academics was a show of democracy for domestic and international consumption. The fact that the candidates all took to the campaign trail together indicates at the least an unusual level of understanding among men reputed to be battling for the top job.

Not everyone on the political scene is on such good terms with Rakhmonov. Two major opposition parties boycotted the poll. The Hizbi Demokrati (Democratic Party) and the Social Democratic Party are angry over constitutional amendments allowing Rakhmonov to stand in the election. The changes, adopted by referendum in 2003, allowed Rakhmonov to stand for election on two more occasions. The president, who had altered the constitution in 1999 to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, could now be in power until 2020.

A democracy, of sorts

The Social Democratic Party is led by one-time Rakhmonov ally Rahmatullo Zoirov. A former presidential aide, he resigned over the 2003 amendments, which like many others he interpreted as presaging an increasingly authoritarian approach by Rakhmonov.

The trend has also been manifested in criminal proceedings against opposition leaders, critics say. Democratic Party leader Mahmudruzi Iskandarov is serving a twenty-year prison term on charges of terrorism, embezzlement and banditry. The government has recognised an alternative wing of the Democratic Party, in what Iskandarov's supporters say is a bid to silence the real opposition.

Such cases are not widely publicised in the Tajik media, which is largely loyal to Rakhmonov. But awareness of them seems as likely to provoke fear and silence as further dissent. "It doesn't matter if I vote or not - Rakhmonov will win.... Anyone who is against is in prison. If you raise your head, that's it", said a Dushanbe taxi-driver who declined to identify himself.

Another opposition party, the Nahzati Islomi Tojikiston (Islamic Renaissance Party), participated in the poll but did not field a presidential candidate. The party, which (along with the Democratic Party) fought the government in the 1992-97 civil war, was dealt a severe blow by the death of its leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, in August 2006. A power struggle broke out between traditional and modernising wings, settled in favour of a new leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, who is obliged now to focus on rebuilding internal unity.

The decision of the party - which could have offered a clear, coherent opposition to Rakhmonov - not to stand in the election dealt a blow to the chances of an authentic political choice.

The OSCE's statement of preliminary findings issued on 6 November spoke of a lack of political debate, and also singled out the legislative framework and a "media environment largely under government control" as areas of concern.

During the campaign - as at all other times - Rakhmonov's activities dominated the media, though all candidates received free media space. Five websites known for reporting opposition views were temporarily taken down on government orders.

Another incident which marred Tajikistan's democratic credentials was the break-up of a peaceful Democratic Party picket, involving just six protestors, outside the justice ministry on 3 November. Police detained the demonstrators, and one (according to an Associated Press report) was sentenced to fifteen days in prison. This small incident speaks volumes about Tajikistan's commitment to a genuine plurality of views.

Amid the criticism, the OSCE did have some positive things to say about the election: a lack of violence; an efficient election process; serious attempts at voter education; moves to refine legislation; "an inclusive approach to national minorities". Moreover, it heard no allegations of ballot-stuffing, though it found widespread incidents of one person voting for the whole family.

Peace, now

The incumbent plainly enjoyed a favourable position in the election. Rakhmonov dominated the media, controlled parliament via the party that nominated him, commanded the state apparatus, and averted any serious challenge.

After casting his vote in a Dushanbe polling-station whose entrance was festooned with two large banners quoting him, Rakhmonov rejected criticism that the trappings of power could help him win the election - saying that he had not used any such advantages, and that in any case the west was guilty of "double standards": "The president of the USA fights for the Republican Party to win elections in the Senate and Congress... [but] if any president in the post-Soviet space comes out in support of any political party, there is an immediate reaction."

Indeed, Tajik citizens showed little sign of echoing such criticisms - at least openly. In public, their president enjoys a popularity that appears untouched by social problems that are still far from resolved after fourteen years of his rule.

Rakhmonov's promise to fight poverty has gone down well with voters living in the poorest country in the former Soviet Union. The country relies on remittances from the estimated 10% of the population that works abroad. Tajikistan also suffers from infrastructure problems that Rakhmonov, again, has pledged to tackle.

However, it was the president's emphasis on the need to maintain national unity that really hit home with voters. In a country whose experience of civil war is both recent and painful (some estimates suggest a death-toll of up to 100,000, 1.6% of the population), what Tajiks really crave is peace and stability.

"There's no-one like Imomali Rakhmonov because he brought peace", said Sherali Khalilov, sitting drinking tea in the Dushanbe cafe he owns in the bright sunshine. "It was such a nightmare. In 1994 I was beaten with a machine-gun by some fighters and I was unconscious for one-and-a-half months. It was lawless. Now it's fine and we live well. There is no other leader like this for Tajikistan, so I'm voting for him. My family and relatives are all for Imomali Rakhmonov."

As Rakhmonov heads for another seven-year term, critics suggest that it could see a further erosion of democracy and more outright authoritarianism. However, thoughts of democracy are not a priority for most voters. What they hope for is seven more years of peace.


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