KHUJAND, Tajikistan; May 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Rakhmonov has pursued an effective divide-and-conquer strategy that has left many opposition parties crippled or drawn into uneasy partnerships with the presidential party. The result is fierce competition among Islamic-rooted groups as they seek to capitalize on the weakness of the staunch secular opposition.
Even the IRP -- the only sanctioned Islamic party -- stands little chance of defeating Rakhmonov and his powerful People's Democratic Party in November. But a senior leader of the IRP in the northern Soghd Province, Salohiddin Husainzoda, says the party is not ready to concede. He insists the IRP -- who last year claimed a membership of 20,000 -- is gaining strength.
"After the signing of the  peace accord, the Islamic Renaissance Party managed to prove itself as a viable political party. With each day, we attract more members to our party," Husainzoda says. Waxing Or Waning?
The IRP was part of an antigovernment coalition during Tajikistan's civil war in 1992-97. When the fighting stopped, the party spent several years as a member of the governing coalition. But those alliances dissolved long ago, leaving behind a fractious opposition.
The IRP was strong and confident enough to field Rakhmonov's only opponent in the 1999 presidential election. But since then, the IRP has not fared so well -- evidenced by flagging support in the 2000 and 2005 elections.
But the IRP is prepared to go it alone. Party activist Dodojon Yakubov hints at a strategy to leverage the IRP's unique status in this predominantly Muslim country of 6 million. And he says they aren't looking for campaign allies.
"In the [presidential] election that will be held in November, the leadership of the Islamic Renaissance Party has decided that we will participate [alone]," Yakubov. "That way, we hope the people of Tajikistan -- who are mostly Muslims [and] who are educated -- will support our party in presidential election." Walking The Line
But there is a risk to relying too heavily on Islamic credentials in a region where governments are aggressive about suppressing Muslim extremism. Critics charge that authorities here use such fear as a pretext to crack down on legitimate political dissent.
IRP members claim that they are harassed and intimidated by local authorities in Soghd Province. Police have been known to turn up at meetings of the IRP's female membership -- not to check passports -- but to discourage political activism.
One IRP member in Khujand, Mohiniso Ochilova, likened the officials' actions to arrests and scare tactics employed against the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Islamist Rivals
Ironically, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical Islamic groups present the IRP with a challenge of their own. While it has complained about the inclusion of the word "secular" in the country's constitution, the IRP's stated agenda is for democratic reform with a more prominent role for religion in Tajik politics.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, on the other hand, advocates the replacement of secular governments with an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. It is banned throughout most of the region. But it still recruits in the region -- and IRP officials claim that Hizb ut-Tahrir has sought to undermine their party's activities for years.
IRP's Soghd Province leader Husainzoda accuses the Hizb ut-Tahrir of waging a campaign to discredit his party among the public.
"Ever since Hizb ut-Tahrir became active [in Tajikistan], it became obvious that they disliked us to some extent. We heard that they were spreading rumors about us," Husainzoda says.
IRP activist Dodojon Yakubov
IRP activist Yakubov echoes sentiments expressed by a number of his party colleagues about Hizb ut-Tahrir.
"Firstly, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a foreign party -- so they have no right to work in our society. Secondly, their platform runs counter to the Tajik Constitution," Yakubov says. 'We're Not Them'
Soghd Province leader Husainzoda argues that the IRP presents Tajiks with a useful alternative to the Islamist agenda of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He says that fact should please Tajik officials.
"In some areas -- in those regions where groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and others are active -- we cannot create a strong presence," Husainzoda says. "But in those areas where the Islamic Renaissance Party has a strong presence, there is no sign of Hizb ut-Tahrir or any other illegal groups." Familiar Faces?
The IRP has not yet anointed its choice to challenge President Rakhmonov. But that is not unusual in the region, since political challengers have a habit of attracting particular attention from prosecutors -- often landing in jail or fleeing into exile as a result.
IRP party leader and cleric Said Abdullo Nuri remains an influential figure on the Tajik scene. He signed the 1997 peace accord on behalf of the rebel coalition. But he is currently facing slander charges over his recent allegations of official corruption at a public utility.
Soghd Province leader Husainzoda says the announcement of the IRP's candidate will have to wait until a party congress in August or September.
"A presidential election will take place this year, and as one of the country's independent and powerful parties, we will field a candidate," Husainzoda says. "It is still our party's secret. But we will reveal our candidate before the election."
That person's chances of upsetting the status quo in November could depend on whether the IRP can successfully present itself as a moderate Islamic voice -- and steer clear of official obstacles.
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