Tajikistan held elections for president on Saturday but effectively only one candidate -- incumbent Imomali Rakhmonov -- ran. Two challengers were barred and the only opposition candidate left refused to compete, citing manipulation of the process. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the conduct of the election bodes ill for the country's parliamentary elections due in February.
Prague, 8 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The day after Saturday's presidential election, Davlatali Davlatov, the deputy speaker of the Tajik parliament and member of the country's Central Elections Commission, made an announcement that surprised no one: "Today, the Central Election Commission declared that elections were valid, there were no shortcomings and that the next president of Tajikistan for the coming seven years is Imomali Sharipovich Rakhmonov."
Saturday's voting marked the second time Tajikistan had held presidential elections since independence in 1991. It was the first time elections had been held since Tajikistan's civil war ended in June 1997. And despite more than two years of preparations and considerable hopes regarding their conduct, the election drew heavy criticism from international human rights groups and from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the end, the OSCE refused to send observers.
After the vote, official results showed an overwhelming win for Rakhmonov -- of the 97 percent of voters who took part, almost 97 percent cast their ballots for the incumbent.
Davlat Usmon, Tajikistan's economics minister, was the mostly unwilling alternative candidate in Saturday's elections. Though originally confident of victory when Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party forwarded his candidacy in late September, Usmon suffered a series of setbacks. Along with two other opposition candidates, he said he had difficulty collecting the voter signatures needed to register. All three vowed to declare a boycott but were barred from participating by the elections commission less than one month before the voting.
With opposition groups complaining and criticism coming from abroad about a one-man presidential race, Usmon was given permission to compete by the Central Election Commission. He refused to campaign, saying the permission given to him to run was only an attempt to bring legitimacy to the election. He remained defiant after the results were announced. "We do not recognize the results of the elections for Tajikistan's presidency. Elections were held without an alternative, this is our final decision and we stand by it," he said.
Even if Usmon had cleared the registration process in the beginning, he would have faced a daunting task competing against Rakhmonov. Marie Struthers from Human Rights Watch says Rakhmonov's victory was a certainty. She explained some of the reasons to RFE/RL. "In the weeks leading up to the elections there was an absolutely one-sided, pro-presidential, Rakhmonov, campaign conducted through the radio and television, the result being, at least for my part, I never saw Davlat Usmon on TV, heard him very rarely speak on state radio and never saw his portrait throughout the city of Dushanbe, or throughout the country, as I saw, and many people saw, posters and portraits of President Rakhmonov," Struthers said.
Such practices led the principle opposition formation in the country -- the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) -- to announce a boycott of elections. However, in an eleventh hour move, UTO leader Said Abdullo Nuri said the boycott had been lifted.
"I say that due to agreements we signed, I participated in elections. Of course, our participation means the boycott which was declared earlier is no longer in effect."
Nuri lifted the boycott reportedly in exchange for the release of 93 UTO members still held in Tajik jails and concessions for parliamentary elections coming next February.
Despite the refusal of the OSCE to send observers and criticism from rights groups, some international observers were present. They included the acting information director from the CIS Inter-parliamentary Assembly's Executive Committee, Aleksander Metelskii. Metelskii said none of the assembly's observers noticed any violations. Uzbekistan's Ambassador to Tajikistan, Bakhtiyor Urdashev, told reporters the same. He said "the elections took place in a positive atmosphere with a high level of activity among voters. We did not see any (election) violations."
However, approval of the election process in a CIS state by observers from other CIS states is commonplace. But Struthers from Human Rights Watch and the CIS's Metelskii agree on one thing. Both say Rakhmonov would have won no matter who was allowed to participate.
For international observers interested in Tajikistan's political development, the next big event is the parliamentary election in February. Arguably, it is of more importance than Saturday's vote.
As part of the 1997 peace agreement the UTO was given 30 percent of the posts in the government, including cabinet posts. That part of the deal lasts until the parliamentary poll in February. Conditions for free and fair elections are supposed to be in place by then.
Officially, the UTO has disarmed. But few inside or outside Tajikistan believe the UTO has really handed in all its weapons or even most of them. Also, UTO formations continue to exert de facto control over several regions in central and eastern Tajikistan.
The UTO emphasized during the recent presidential campaign that the only battlefield in Tajikistan is in the political arena. But the presidential campaign has been a source of frustration for the UTO and cracks in the alliance are already showing. If no improvement in the election environment comes when campaigning begins for parliament some of the more extremist elements in the UTO could be tempted to leave the political arena. In such a case, elections which were to be a demonstration of stability may instead bring the country closer to a new civil conflict.
(Iskander Aliyev of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)