The Central Asian countries of the CIS have often been criticized for making slow progress toward establishing democratic institutions and practices since the breakup of the Soviet Union. This year will see polls in four of the five nations -- elections which will be closely watched for signs of an improvement in democracy building. In a three-part series, correspondent Bruce Pannier looks first at presidential elections due in Tajikistan. Part two looks at elections planned for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Part three looks at Kazakhstan, where parliamentary elections are planned.
Prague, 22 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Tajikistan is preparing to hold its first elections following the end of the country's five-year civil war. Presidential polls are scheduled to be held sometime before November 6.
There are those who feel that the time remaining is not sufficient to prepare for such an important election. Others believe that conducting the voting will be an important sign that stability is returning to Tajikistan.
One thing is certain: With less than five months to go, Tajikistan's Central Electoral Commission has much work to do to prepare for the polls.
The office of the presidency in Tajikistan has an interesting history. The first president of Tajikistan was Rahmon Nabiyev, the last leader of the Soviet republic of Tajikistan before it achieved its independence in late 1991. Nabiyev was forced out when the civil war began in the spring of 1992.
Several people temporarily served as head-of-state in Tajikistan following Nabiyev's ouster, but there was no clear leader until current President Imomali Rakhmonov came to power as chairman of the Supreme Soviet in November 1992. The position of president in Tajikistan was abolished by the Supreme Soviet shortly after.
Two years later -- on November 6, 1994 -- Tajikistan held presidential elections and a referendum to approve a new constitution. That constitution reinstituted the post of president. There were numerous complaints about irregularities in that election, held during the middle of the civil war. Rakhmonov's opponent, former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullojonov, was foremost among those who protested, pointing out that -- according to the official vote count -- he had even lost in his own constituency.
The civil war ended in June 1997 when President Rakhmonov signed the Tajik Peace Accord with Said Abdullo Nuri, the head of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), largely comprised of Islamic groups.
One of the terms of the accord was that a national referendum be held on amendments to the constitution. Following that, elections to parliament would be conducted, then presidential elections.
However, Tajikistan's National Reconciliation Commission -- charged with drafting amendments to the Tajik constitution -- has in its nearly two years of existence proposed only one amendment. And the UTO says the constitution must first be changed before free and fair parliamentary elections can be held. The UTO has not objected to the concept of presidential elections under the current constitution, although they strongly disagree with the timing of the poll.
Hikmatullo Sadullozoda (eds: man) of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party -- one of the groups which forms the UTO -- does not believe elections should be held this year. He spoke recently with RFE/RL:
"Unfortunately, the pre-election marathon which the government has started is, in our opinion, a unilateral action because the peace agreement was concluded so the UTO could participate in the elections, so they would be legitimate. But today the parties of the opposition are banned and holding elections [now] does not bode well for us."
But Bozgul Dotkhudoyeva (eds: woman), the deputy prime minister of Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL that conditions are right for holding a presidential election this year.
"In my opinion, all the conditions -- political and economic -- exist for conducting elections. And if the Tajik opposition fulfills those obligations of the peace agreement for which they are responsible on time, then the elections will undoubtedly take place."
Tajikistan's representative from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Oynihol Bobonazarova (eds: woman), suggested to RFE/RL that the country might not be ready for elections.
"In accordance with the peace agreement, first there should be a referendum, then parliamentary elections, and then presidential elections. The government declared [presidential] elections before November 6, but how can they hold elections before legislation is passed and the people don't know anything about the laws? It is possible presidential elections will be held under the existing laws."
Tajikistan's National Movement Party is a secular political party not aligned with either Rakhmonov's government or the UTO. The chairman, Hokimshoh Muhabatov (eds: man), offers a possible compromise to the problem of the order of the parliamentary and presidential elections, a plan which could bring the country's election process back on schedule:
"Maybe presidential elections will be held on the basis of the present constitution. If this is the case, Tajikistan is ready for elections and if the government and opposition cannot pass new legislation in time, the elections can be held according to the existing laws on elections. The majority of political parties are demanding to hold parliamentary elections first. There is a way out. Extend the term of the president until February or March 2000 and during that interval hold the referendum and parliamentary elections. After that, the presidential elections can be held."
At least one support group says it is ready for elections, and it credits international organizations for helping it to prepare. Gulchera Mirzoyeva (eds: woman) is the chairwoman of Tajikistan's social organization "Modar," or Mother. The group seeks to increase voter awareness among women, who make up some 57 percent of the electorate.
"In my opinion, we are ready to take part in the Tajik elections. At least one year ago, with the help of international organizations, we began work to prepare women for elections, and we see the activities of women among the population."
The person who likely stands to gain the most from holding the election according to the current schedule is President Rakhmonov himself. His candidacy has been forwarded but he has not officially announced his intention to run, although it seems certain. Other candidates have yet to come forward to challenge Rakhmonov.
The UTO is the most organized political opposition in the Central Asian countries of the CIS, but its efforts are hurt by bans on some groups within the alliance dating from the civil war and by rogue elements among its former combat units.
The UTO has received high-profile posts in the cabinet but has not been given positions at the local or village level, the places in which campaigning needs to begin. This is one of the issues that has caused a serious break in contact between the UTO and government officials recently.
The government last week handed over several more federal positions to UTO members and promised to provide places in 14 towns, cities and districts of the UTO's choosing. But this agreement hinges on UTO compliance with military integration which may prove a lengthy process and the promised positions might not come before presidential elections.
Also, it is unclear how election officials who will be responsible for tallying the votes will be appointed. Some areas in Tajikistan are under the control of local warlords and are unsafe and so will be difficult to monitor.
There are well-established political parties in Tajikistan and the country's first post-war vote will likely have a large and enthusiastic turnout. But it remains to be seen whether the vote, if it takes place, will be considered free and fair. If it manages to meet that mark, it will be a very encouraging sign regarding the country's political development. It would also offer a much needed example for Tajikistan's Central Asian neighbors.
(Soljida Djakhfarova of the Tajik Service also contributed to this report.)