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Tajikistan: Voter Awareness Low As Vote Nears

Tajikistan's election campaign is under way, with six political parties vying for seats in the lower house of parliament. But candidates and other observers say they are concerned that many Tajik voters -- especially those in rural areas -- are not getting enough information about the election. Newspapers and magazines are scarce, and winter electricity quotas mean few people are watching election news on TV. Voter attention is higher in some areas. But some election watchers worry the information shortage will help the two dominating parties make a clean sweep of the 27 February vote. RFE/RL correspondents Farangis Najibullah and Daisy Sindelar report.

Prague, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- If you had just six hours of electricity a day, would you spend it watching election news on TV?

That is the question facing many Tajiks living beyond the capital Dushanbe. Wintertime power supplies are limited to three hours in the morning and three hours at night. Even those people interested in following the campaign on TV or radio may simply not have the time to do so.

Sharifa, a young woman in the southern Tajik town of Kulob, told RFE/RL she has almost no information about the upcoming election. "I don't know anything about the elections," she said. "There is no gas, no television and no radio. In circumstances like these, how are you supposed to know what the election is about and who the candidates are?"

Tajiks living in rural areas also have little access to newspapers and magazines. Financial strains mean most print media come out no more than once a week. Few travel far beyond major cities.

And with more than half the country living below the poverty line -- earning the equivalent sometimes of just $5-$10 a month -- many Tajiks cannot afford to buy newspapers even when they are available.

Reaching voters has proved a challenge for the six political parties campaigning for parliamentary seats. Abdullah Fozil, a journalist from the country's northern Maschoh district, said some candidates simply walk from street to street, trying to meet as many people as they can.

"Some candidates speak to people on the street or at private gathering or parties. There is no [platform] or microphone for them. They need to use every other kind of opportunity they can find to speak to people," Fozil told RFE/RL.

But even the simplest face-to-face campaigning has been made difficult by weeks of heavy snowfall across the mountainous country. Snowdrifts and avalanches have blocked roads, leaving many village residents isolated.

Candidates from the two dominant political groups, the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) and the Communist Party, have reportedly been given the use of government automobiles for some of their campaigning.
Some local and international observers say even in the capital city of Dushanbe there are few apparent signs of campaign activity.

But opposition groups have had to show more ingenuity. Shamsuddin Saidov, an official with the Islamic Revival Party in the southern Kulob region, says some candidates have gone to extreme lengths to reach voters. "Our party's candidate, Sayed Umar, has had to go by foot -- or sometimes even by horse -- to reach voters in villages," he said. "Yes, this was the only way we could reach people in the mountainous regions."

Still, it is proving impossible to reach every remote Tajik village. Jumakhon, a man living in the southern region of Khatlon, said he and many of his fellow villagers have heard nothing about the election. "It has been snowing badly in my home region," he said. "I found about the elections only when I came to Kulob from the Shurobod [area of Khatlon]."

The situation is less bleak in some parts of the country. Some suburban residents near the northern city of Khojand say they have followed the campaign closely -- due in part to efforts by local officials to raise voter awareness.

Roziya, a teacher working near Khojand, said she prefers to vote for people already holding official posts, many of whom are members of the ruling People's Democratic Party. She said such officials make better candidates than those from the opposition parties because they have good connections and are more capable of fulfilling their pre-election promises.

"I live in Yova village. I'm following the elections. We will be voting for the head of our collective farm. He has been very helpful. With his help, our village was connected to a gas pipeline and the main road was repaired," Roziya said.

The parliamentary election is just over a week away. But some local and international observers say even in the capital city of Dushanbe there are few apparent signs of campaign activity.

Peter Eicher, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election observation mission in Tajikistan, told RFE/RL: "One of the things that strikes you if you come to Tajikistan and wander the streets of Dushanbe or other cities is how little evident political activity there is at this point. There are very few posters or banners; there have not been any major election rallies."

Tajiks in the capital have far better access to election information than people living elsewhere. But awareness does not necessarily translate into enthusiasm. Many Dushanbe residents say if past experience is any guide, the upcoming vote will bring few changes to their lives.

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