A dark horse has emerged ahead of Tajikistan's national elections that could add some excitement to an otherwise predictable poll.
Following considerable effort to transform its image, Central Asia's only religiously based political party, Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, enters the gate determined to change the status quo.
Of the eight parties fielding candidates in the February 28 vote, only the ruling People's Democratic Party is expected to hold real power in the lower house of parliament, or Majlis.
"Tajikistan's upcoming parliamentary election is so 'transparent' that we can already see its results," Dushanbe resident Dust Muhammad quipped recently in a comment to RFE/RL's Tajik Service website.
It's a sentiment shared by many who view the vote as a formality to extend the ruling party's legislative stranglehold for another five years.
All eight of the country's registered parties will participate in the poll, with a total of 221 candidates vying for 63 seats (41 single-mandate and 22 party-based seats). Just two opposition parties are represented in the current parliament, however, with a combined six seats.
And observers don't expect any sea changes.
But the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), revitalized and rejuvenated following an extensive makeover, enters the race expecting to expand its parliamentary representation from two to 10.
"Of course, it would be naive to believe the election will be fair; we don't forget we live in a closed society," says IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri. "We should not expect free and fair elections in Central Asia in the foreseeable future, but we hope this election will be more fair than the 2005 vote."
Recent opinion polls rank the IRP second in terms of power and influence within Tajik society only to President Emomali Rahmon's People's Democratic Party. Its 35,000 members and thousands of supporters have made the IRP among the country's best-organized parties since the late 1990s.
But after that support translated into only two seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2005, the IRP took a long look in the mirror and began making significant changes.
The IRP, the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia, has in the past depended heavily on support in the country's conservative east -- particularly Rasht Valley, the wartime stronghold of the Islamic opposition fighters. Today, the party boasts an increasing number of followers in other regions, including Kulob and Sughd, traditionally dominated by the pro-presidential party.
Breaking The Mold
The IRP broadened its support base in a number of ways. First, it sought to shed its image, cultivated since its founding in 1990, as a rural party followed by mullahs and religious conservatives. By replenishing its aging ranks, the party has made itself more appealing to intellectuals, businessmen, and students. Most of the IRP's candidates in the upcoming elections are in their 30s and 40s, and they include lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and at least one professional sportsman.
Forty-five-year-old party leader Kabiri has played a major role in the ongoing transformation. Kabiri took over following the death in 2006 of his mentor, Said Abdullohi Nuri, the iconic founder of the IRP.
Kabiri maintains that he has continued in the path of his predecessor, but there is a sharp contrast in their methods and presentations.
Unlike the publicity-shy Nuri, who wore a dark beard and donned a long cloak at official meetings, the clean-shaven Kabiri comes across as media-savvy, outspoken, and dynamic.
An avid handball player, Kabiri and travels abroad frequently, giving speeches and interviews in Russian and English.
Kabiri has sought support outside the party's traditional base -- making it his goal to appeal to young and educated Tajiks, including women.
One of the four women on the IRP's list of candidates, Zurafo Rahmoni, says the party aims to promote women's role in society, including in the political arena.
She opposes quotas of the sort that are currently in place in Tajikistan, saying they "actually limit women's real participation."
"Women should be treated as men's equal, so they could have an equal and healthy competition with men," Rahmoni says. "If we create such conditions for women, hundreds of women will emerge as leaders on their own merits."
Despite the IRP's "new image," however, the party still faces hurdles to mainstream acceptance. Tajik critics insist the party's ultimate goal is to replace the current secular system with Islamic governance.
Kabiri maintains that he supports the country's secular system and is not trying to create an Islamic state or Islamic republic in Tajikistan.
"Our goal is to create a society that lives with Islamic values," Kabiri says.
The IRP, believed to be the most affluent opposition party in Tajikistan, battles the perception that it receives financial support from foreign Islamic states -- presumably Iran and Saudi Arabia -- in exchange for greater influence in Central Asia. The IRP denies any such arrangements, claiming that it benefits from charities and generous sponsors.
Some have accused the IRP of buying its support. One university student claimed to RFE/RL that he joined the party only because the IRP pays money to its supporters. The claim could not be verified.
Some have questioned how the IRP managed to list 39 candidates for the looming elections while the $1,500 registration fee -- twice the amount required in the 2005 elections -- proved a serious obstacle for other political parties.
The Communist Party, whose candidates advocate state control over the economy and even a return to the Soviet Union, is the only other party given much chance of garnering enough votes to make parliament. It has registered only about half that number of candidates.
The opposition Social Democrat and Democratic Party listed seven and three candidates, respectively.
To date, the IRP has launched 50 complaints pertaining to electoral violations and official interference. The IRP's and other opposition parties' complaints claim that their canvassers are harassed by local police, that the ruling party is given sole access to assembly halls where potential voters could be won over, and that the timing of the elections in the middle of winter makes it difficult to campaign in remote areas.
Kabiri claims that the IRP makes up for such disadvantages by having the most active supporters in the election campaign. "People show little interest in elections, so our campaigners go door to door to talk to voters, to promote our party, and to explain the importance of their participation," the IRP leader says.
While heavy snowfall and icy roads in mountainous terrain have discouraged some candidates from traveling to remote villages, IRP representatives have donned signature blue scarves in eastern Rasht district and ventured out on horseback in an effort to meet voters.
However, despite all the efforts and financial investments, not everyone is convinced the Islamic party stands a chance of boosting its parliamentary presence.
Shokirjon Hakimov, a representative of the Social Democrat Party, predicts the IRP will get no more than three seats in the next Majlis.
"In regions like Karategin, where the IRP has most of its supporters, local authorities will try to show their loyalty to the government," Hakimov says, "so they'll use all kinds of methods to ensure the victory of ruling party candidates."
IRP leaders themselves are not "overly optimistic" that the parliamentary elections will be free and fair.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has not recognized either of the country's post-civil war parliamentary elections, in 2000 and 2005, as free and fair. IRP leaders insist Tajikistan's authorities "still are not ready for real and transparent votes."
Kabiri has warned officials against electoral fraud, saying that "if people, once again, lose their faith in elections, if people no longer believe they can determine their future through lawful means, it would be the authorities' biggest gift to extremists."