Few outside Tajikistan's firmly entrenched political elite would ever dream of running against powerful incumbent Emomali Rahmon. One state-funded think tank appears to be doing its best to ensure it stays that way.
The sanity of Quvvatali Murodov, a retired doctor with no political affiliations but bold ambitions to challenge Rahmon in 2020, has been questioned after he said he wanted to "end the politics of fear" in Tajikistan and suggested that the authorities drop restrictions that make it difficult to run for the presidency.
Murodov, 69, repeated his determination to join the presidential race, despite negligible chances of success, in a January 18 interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
"Everybody is afraid. Don’t say this, don’t say that. There is no freedom of speech. The media can’t write freely," said Murodov, a former member of the now-disbanded People's Front, which fought in the 1992-97 Tajik civil war. "People should be able to speak freely...and demand their rights."
The next day, the Center of the Strategical Studies -- a think tank with official ties to the Tajik president's office -- published what were essentially anonymous opinion pieces directly questioning Murodov's sanity, suggesting he had ulterior business motives and alluding that some seek to return the country to conflict.
"His mental health should be subject to a medical assessment," said one of the pieces, attributed only to M. Akrami.
Another piece argued that there was no climate of fear in Tajikistan and hence there was no need to talk about it. Government matters should not be taken "lightly" and "the election campaign must not be dealt with with irresponsibility and carelessness," it said.
The article, written by a Karim Pirimzoda, went on to attack unnamed enemies who "want to paralyze the governing system" and "plot another devastating war."
The third opinion piece, penned by "Sharifzoda R.E.," claimed that Murodov's presidential ambitions were no more than a bid to settle a personal score after he lost a court case regarding his privatization of a sanatorium in 1997.
In 2004, the court ordered Murodov to return the property to the government, ruling that the privatization was illegal. Murodov unsuccessfully sued authorities for compensation of the money he says he paid to purchase and renovate the building.
Saifullo Safarov, the deputy head of the center, said on January 23 that the articles were sent by ordinary residents of the capital, Dushanbe.
"The very fact that Murodov wants run for president proves that there is not a climate of fear in Tajikistan," Safarov said. "The authorities will provide security to anyone running for parliament and president."
Murodov first announced his intention to run for office in March, when he called on parliament to drop the requirement that presidential hopefuls present 210,000 signatures in order to register as a candidate.
Murodov proposed that it should be changed to 25,000 instead. In the 2013 election, an opposition candidate was disqualified for failing to gather the required number of signatures.
An anesthesiologist by profession, Murodov was once a member of the People’s Front, a pro-government paramilitary force that fought against the Islamist-led opposition in Tajikistan's civil war.
Rahmon, who came to power in 1992, has won several elections described by Western monitors as not free and lacking transparency and genuine choice.
In 2015, parliament gave Rahmon the title "Leader of the Nation," giving him the exclusive right to run for president an unlimited number of times. His current seven-year term expires in 2020.
Daler Sharipov, a Dushanbe-based journalist who writes about domestic politics, says Murodov's announcement was unexpected so early ahead of the next election.
"It's important to have such people in society. It changes the monotonic situation of our political scene," Sharipov said.
Sharipov said that despite having little chance to win, "it's good to have genuine contenders" as opposed to "false" candidates selected by authorities to portray the election as democratic.
Abdughani Mahmadazimov, the head of the independent Society of Political Scientists in Dushanbe, said Murodov's effort to run for office "breaks the belief in our society that it's impossible [for ordinary people] to take part in a presidential election."
Murodov told RFE/RL that he is now working on a political program in preparation for the election campaign, which is expected to officially start in the autumn.
Tajikistan holds both parliamentary and presidential elections in 2020, but no date has been set. Campaigns usually begin one year ahead of time.
He said that he is running despite objections from his own family. Murodov says his four children have told him they would vote for Rahmon even if their father gets on the ballot.
"They are telling me not to run, because they’re afraid," Murodov told RFE/RL.
Rahmon and his ruling People’s Democratic Party are widely expected to win both presidential and general elections by a landslide.
The Central Asian nation has no record of elections described as fair and free by Western observers.