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Tajikistan: Presidential Polls Close, Officials Claim High Turnout --> A campaign poster for President Rakhmonov in downtown Dushanbe today (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, November 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Initial results are expected on November 7 in Tajikistan's third presidential election since independence in 1991. But the early reports suggesting high voter turnout, if confirmed, would be met with relief by President Imomali Rakhmonov's supporters.

Armed with the weight of incumbency in a region that hasn't seen a single head of state voted out since independence 15 years ago, Rakhmonov's only real challenge is likely to come from critics of the process.

Critics also note that the administration has succeeded in sidelining some of its most strident critics, in some cases with long jail sentences.

A low turnout could bolster claims of voter disenchantment and signal that an opposition boycott was effective.

Tajikistan's Central Election Commission declared the elections valid within five hours of the polls opening, saying nearly two-thirds of more than 3 million eligible voters had already cast their ballots. The election commission was joined in that endorsement by observers from the CIS, which has deployed nearly 240 election observers to Tajikistan.

CIS Executive Secretary Vladimir Rushailo said in Dushanbe today that he thought the tools were in place to ensure a fair Tajik election.

"All polling stations are equipped with the necessary documentation," he said. "They all have booths and ballot boxes, which have been sealed in accordance with the existing legislation. We therefore hope the polls will proceed in accordance with the election law of the Republic of Tajikistan."

The CIS's conclusions have frequently clashed with the views of Western electoral observers.

OSCE And CIS Monitors

Quick pronouncements like the noon validation of the voting today could fuel concerns among leading Western observers, including the OSCE.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service spoke with a number of voters today, and some of their claims suggested at least minor irregularities. One person told RFE/RL that his household had received a single voter-registration card for six eligible voters.

This woman told RFE/RL that she was able simply to vote on behalf of other family members.

"My name is Malika, I am a teacher and 25 years old," she said. "I voted today on behalf of four members of my family -- on behalf of my husband, my father-in-law, and my mother-in-law. I went to the polling station with four voting cards [and] I told the polling staff I was voting on behalf of four [people] and they welcomed it. They said this would help save their time and speed up the process."

Accounts like hers that might leave some wondering about the credibility of the results of this election.

Opposition Parties Not Playing

The OSCE is expected to present its preliminary conclusions on November 7 and come out with a final report in about eight weeks. It has never endorsed a Tajik election as "free and fair," and has already criticized the legal framework for this election and a lack of regulation, among other things.

Three major Tajik opposition parties have denounced this election (the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, the Social Democratic Party, and the Islamic Renaissance Party). They say election law, state-controlled media, and the state administration are stacked too heavily against any real challenge to Rakhmonov.

Critics also note that the administration has succeeded in sidelining some of its most strident critics, in some cases with long jail sentences.

Four relatively unknown men campaigned against Rakhmonov, who has essentially led the country for 14 years but is eligible for two more seven-year terms. But those rivals' efforts appeared limited to criticizing the current president only in the margins.

Those candidates include Communist Party candidate Ismoil Talbakov, Socialist Party candidate Abduhalim Ghafforov, Agrarian Party candidate Amir Karakulov, and Party For Economic Reform candidate Olimjon Boboev.

One of those candidates, Socialist Abduhalim Ghafforov, has already appeared on television in Dushanbe to praise local authorities' noninterference in the process. He called balloting "very democratic and transparent."

As the vote count continued overnight, it remained to be seen whether Rakhmonov's political opponents and international observers will be so gracious.

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