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Tajikistan: OSCE Launches Project To Improve Election Laws

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says it will sponsor a project to improve election laws in Tajikistan. The project is aimed at promoting democratization in the country and attracting foreign investment to its economy.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking at a news conference in Dushanbe earlier this week (12 February), Marc Gilbert -- the head of the OSCE's mission in Tajikistan -- declared that the country's laws on elections and political parties "need to be improved."

Also present were the chairman of the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda, Mirzoali Boltuev, and the head of the UN's Tajikistan Office of Peace-Building, Ivo Petrov. The conference was held in the run-up to by-elections to Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon, or House of Representatives. They will be held on 17 February in the Asht constituency; on 10 March in the Kolkhozobod constituency; and on 10 April in the Kulob and Vose constituencies.

Gilbert pointed out that several candidates will be standing for by-elections in the Asht and Kolkhozobod constituencies, a fact the OSCE says is a positive sign for the development of democracy in Tajikistan.

To keep the process moving forward, Gilbert said the OSCE will sponsor a project to further improve Tajik election laws. The OSCE project will be aimed at developing democracy and attracting foreign investors to the country.

"Under the umbrella of OSCE, there will be working groups which will make proposals to improve the election laws."

A year after winning independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan plunged into a five-year civil war. In accordance with the Tajik Peace Agreement reached in June 1997 by the Moscow-backed government and the United Tajik Opposition, the Commission on National Reconciliation formulated a new election law in December 1999.

As Boltuev of Tajikistan's Central Commission for Elections told RFE/RL: "This law was adopted in a difficult time with a kind of urgency, and it has some problems. As the head of the Central Election Commission, I should say that we need a demand of alternativeness of elections [in the new legislation]. There should be three to four candidates to choose one. Otherwise, it will be just voting, not electing."

In parliamentary elections held in February 2000, six parties participated, as well as a number of independent candidates. The OSCE, however, said the new legislative framework failed to secure "minimum democratic standards" for equal, free, secret, transparent, and accountable elections. The pro-presidential Popular Democratic Party won 70 percent of the seats.

State organs, the OSCE document said, interfered in the elections in a manner not "foreseen in law." According to the OSCE, the legislative and regulatory framework for the media was "inadequate" and the state-owned television failed to provide "balanced news and editorial coverage of the campaign." Important control provisions during the voting were violated, it added, including a large amount of proxy voting.

As for presidential elections held in 1999, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government excluded opposition candidates from the ballot, sought to restrict the activities of political parties, and imposed additional curbs on the media. "The presidential race," HRW said, "is limited to one candidate -- the incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov." Observers also concluded that the 1994 presidential elections, which brought Rakhmonov to power, were also marred by flagrant fraud.

John Shoeberlein, the director of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University, told RFE/RL: "In the previous elections, not only was there a widespread assessment that the elections were not carried out fairly -- that is, there were irregularities in the polling process. But there was a very serious problem of the lack of an even playing field for opposition groups. The major opposition group -- the Islamic Renaissance Party -- for example, was widely excluded from access to the media, and this is something that really needs to be addressed both in law and practice."

Shoeberlein stresses that improvement of Tajikistan's election laws is not enough by itself to promote democratization of the country.

"There is a tendency sometimes for international organizations to focus on the formalities of the elections process. But in fact what's wrong often times is actually how they are implemented and the general atmosphere that surrounds them."

In Kyrgyzstan, Shoeberlein says, the OSCE has been "fairly engaged" with the government to improve election laws. He adds, however, that this engagement has been marginally successful, given that the main problem remains the observance of these laws.

In 1999, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) -- an arm of the OSCE -- worked with other international organizations to review Kyrgyzstan's election legislation. The 2000 Kyrgyz presidential election, however, failed to comply with OSCE commitments for democratic elections. The ODIHR concluded that "the international standards for equal, free, fair, and accountable elections were not met."

It is believed that the project to improve election laws in Tajikistan will help attract foreign investment to the country's ruined economy. Up to now, analysts say, the lack of public representation and accountability made investors feel as if they ran the risk of authoritarian actions on the part of the Tajik government.

Ana Walker is an analyst on Central Asia for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. She tells RFE/RL that anything that fosters political stability will encourage foreign investment.

"I think the main concern of foreign investors is the regional instability. The domestic political scene is also a concern in that there is perceived to be high levels of corruption. I think investors are concerned that [Tajikistan's] infrastructure hasn't been developed enough to enable them to -- they are wary of putting too much into it."

Foreign investment in Tajikistan is estimated at about $175 million over the past seven years, one of the lowest levels, Walker says, in any of the countries of the former Soviet Union.