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Tajikistan: One-Man Presidential Race Shows Country's Fragility

Tajikistan's Central Election Commission has announced it will not register three opposition candidates for next month's presidential election. The move leaves incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov as the only candidate. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the implications for a country which only emerged from civil war a little over two years ago.

Prague, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan has been working for over two years to prepare for the country's first post-war, democratic elections, with a presidential election scheduled for November 6. But the move by the Central Election Commission yesterday seems to derail one of the elections' intended purposes -- to demonstrate that stability is returning to the country.

The Central Election Commission ruled that the three challengers to incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov had failed to collect and hand over the required 145,000 voter signatures necessary to be officially registered. The three challengers are Davlat Usmon of the Islamic Renaissance Party, Saifiddin Turayev of the Party of Justice, and Sulton Kuvatov of the Democratic Party. They complained nearly two weeks ago that they did not have enough time to collect all the signatures. They also said the Central Election Commission had not provided them with official forms for the signatures. All three twice held joint press conferences, threatening to boycott the election.

State media twice announced that the deadline had been extended, but there were questions as to whether these were official extensions. No official decree allowing the extensions was ever issued.

Usmon's Islamic Renaissance Party is the major force of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which signed the peace agreement with the government in 1997, bringing a five-year civil war to an end. The UTO has since been in frequent disputes with Rakhmonov over implementation of the agreement. In particular, disputes have centered on disarmament, the operation of the National Reconciliation Commission and the sharing of government posts.

On Sunday, in a sign of dissatisfaction with the registration process and amid accusations the commission was breaking the law, the UTO announced it was pulling out its representatives on the Election Commission. UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri met with President Rakhmonov yesterday to discuss the issue, but apparently to no avail.

According to the law on presidential elections, registration of candidates must end no later than 25 days before voting. The Central Election Commission chairman, Mirzoali Boltuyev, made the announcement barring the opposition candidates yesterday.

"As the needed documents have not been handed in we can not register [Turayev, Kuvatov, Usmon]. The Central Election Commission does not have the right to grant a further extension."

Oscar Lennar of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is currently stationed in Tajikistan. He says he favors finding some way to grant the three more time to collect signatures. Lennar spoke with reporters in Dushanbe yesterday.

"The candidates say they would collect the signatures if they would have a few days more to collect them. I think we all should try to find some legal ways, whether it is possible that the candidates can get these additional days. It is an extraordinary situation and I think the future of the country is something that has to be considered very much in such a moment."

Also speaking in the Tajik capital yesterday, the opposition candidates gave their opinion about what to do. Davlat Usmon still had hope.

"The only registered candidate, Imomali Rakhmonov, after all that has happened, should take a decision and address the Central Election Commission and then there could be a change. Even now we have hopes that for the sake of the future of the country, for the sake of stability, for the sake of a solid peace, that the government will change this decision about elections."

Saifiddin Turayev criticized the decision as short-sighted.

"This [decision] is not helpful to Tajikistan. On the contrary, it will break the confidence of foreign countries in Tajikistan. It will lower confidence in Tajikistan and even the people of Tajikistan will not understand it."

The deputy chairman of Tajikistan's parliament, Kozidavlat Koimdodov, defended the commission's decision. He spoke yesterday with RFE/RL:

"Everything we have done during the last seven years was so the law would not be broken. The OSCE representative proposes to come to a compromise solution but such a solution can not be enforced by the law. The Central Election Commission does not have the right to extend the time for collection of signatures. If it did that it would violate the law."

But as the OSCE representative suggested and as Usmon stated, the prospect that the incumbent might stand alone has implications for the ability of the country to sustain what has often appeared to be a fragile peace. It would also represent a step backward in the country's democratization. In 1991, after independence, there were 10 candidates in presidential elections. Even in 1994, while the country was in civil war, there were two candidates.

If Rakhmonov is the only candidate running for the country's highest office, the fragile cooperation between the government and the UTO will likely suffer. There have been outbreaks of violence between forces loyal to the former enemies during the months they have attempted to cooperate in governing the country. An uncontested presidential election would likely presage more instability -- and perhaps more serious instability -- in coming months.

(Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this feature.)