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No Debate, No Competition, No Surprises: It's A Tajik Election

Whatever the vote results, it's clear that power in Tajikistan will continue to reside with President Emomali Rahmon.
Whatever the vote results, it's clear that power in Tajikistan will continue to reside with President Emomali Rahmon.

With no real competition on offer, no surprises are expected when Tajikistan holds elections on March 1 for the lower house of parliament that are projected to be dominated by President Emomali Rahmon's People's Democratic Party (PDPT).

Some other pro-government parties are expected to get a handful of seats in the 63-strong Majlisi Namoyandagon, as the authorities -- who tightly control the election process -- are keen to avoid having a single-party legislature.

Along with the ruling PDPT, six other smaller parties are taking part in the elections. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) is the only opposition group in the mix.

The vote marks Tajikistan's first parliamentary elections since the Supreme Court outlawed the most influential opposition group, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), as a terrorist organization in 2015.

IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri has said the opposition "initially wanted to simply ignore the elections, but the Social Democrats' participation changed its stance."

The Europe-based National Alliance of Tajikistan, which unites several opposition groups including the IRPT, has called on its supporters to vote for the Social Democrats.

"We believe these elections won't be transparent and democratic, but we want to use this small window of opportunity to try to convince people once again that the only peaceful way to bring changes to society is through elections," Kabiri told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on February 27.

IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri fled to Europe to escape arrest.
IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri fled to Europe to escape arrest.

"These are not free and fair elections but we need to use every opportunity, no matter how small that opportunity is," said Kabiri, who is based in Europe.

Tajikistan has long been accused of rigging its elections and putting political and financial pressure on opposition parties to secure the PDPT's majority in parliament and to keep opponents at bay.

Western-based international election organizations have never judged a presidential or parliamentary election in Tajikistan to have been free or fair.

As a result, the IRPT -- which is the second-largest party in the country -- has never been able to get more than two seats in an election, while no other opposition group has ever made it into parliament.

In the 2015 elections, even the IRPT didn't pass the minimum 5 percent threshold to get a seat in the legislature, though the results of the elections were disputed by the opposition.

Yet the presence of the IRPT in elections sparked interest and added vitality to the campaigning, as party officials were able -- unlike pro-government parties -- to attract crowds and engage in real debates.

'My Vote Doesn't Count'

There is little enthusiasm about the upcoming elections among voters across the country.

"My vote doesn't make a difference, we already know who will win," a schoolteacher from Dushanbe told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "Why even bother to hold an election and waste money? The government should spend it on something more useful, for school renovations, for example, so we don't have to demand the parents to pay for paint [for the walls]."

The teacher spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for being retaliated against because of his criticism, as the Tajik government doesn't tolerate dissent.

"Me and my husband are going to vote for the president's party," said Yulduz, a housewife from the northern province of Sughd. She didn't want to give her full name. "I trust the president. It's true that we still have many problems, like a lack of jobs, bribery. But things are getting better."

Asked about the opposition Social Democrats, Yulduz said, "I don't know anything about them."

Tajiks have expressed little enthusiasm for the elections to RFE/RL correspondents.
Tajiks have expressed little enthusiasm for the elections to RFE/RL correspondents.

Unemployment and poverty have forced hundreds of thousands of Tajiks to become migrant workers in Russia. Authorities say Tajiks abroad can cast their ballots in embassies, consulates, and other designated places.

Rajabali Safarov, a Tajik migrant worker in Moscow, said he "didn't know there was an election taking place" until he got a phone call from his family in Tajikistan to tell him a voter's list for his name had arrived.

"I still don't know who I should vote for," Safarov told RFE/RL on February 27.

The Tajik Embassy in Moscow has prepared five polling stations in Russian cities that have Tajik diplomatic corps, Ambassador Imomiddin Safarov told RFE/RL. The ambassador added that several meetings were conducted with migrant workers to encourage them to participate in the vote.

Empty Campaigning

Election officials say all parties and candidates get equal airtime and space on state TV channels and print media to promote their election programs.

No debates, however, are taking place on state TV channels. Campaign posters can be seen on the streets and candidates are holding meetings with voters in their constituencies. The parties and nominees are also using social media to reach out to their voters.

"The election process has improved in comparison to five or 10 years ago," Shokirjon Hakimov, an SDP candidate, says. "But still, local election officials, local governments, and community leaders prioritize the ruling party just because it's the president's party."

Shokirjon Hakimov (file photo)
Shokirjon Hakimov (file photo)

The Tajik parliament is seen as a rubber-stamp body, while the real power and all major decision-making in the Central Asian state rest with strongman President Rahmon, who has been in power since 1992.

Hakimov believes the Social Democrats would bring vitality and real debate to the parliament -- something the outgoing legislature severely lacks. "We'll start genuine debates, we'll engage all media, civil activists, and various institutions," he says.

The SDP was forced to reduce its initial eight-strong party list due to a lack of money to pay a nearly $600 application fee for every candidate. It now has five candidates.

Candidates from five pro-government parties -- the Agrarian Party, the Democrats, the Communists, the Economic Reforms Party, and the Socialists -- are participating in the elections. The Central Election Commission says 241 candidates are competing for the 63 seats available.

Forty-one lawmakers will be elected from single-mandate districts and the remaining 22 seats will be awarded by the party-list system.

According to the Central Election Commission, there are 4.79 million eligible voters, including the hundreds of thousands of labor migrants abroad. At least 50 percent of all voters must cast their ballots for the election to be considered valid. Tajik officials usually present a very high turnout.

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