On paper, Tajikistan's November 6 presidential election has all the trappings of a legitimate contest. In reality, however, it's all about the longstanding incumbent: President Emomali Rahmon.
When five men emerged as challengers to try to unseat the incumbent in Tajikistan's November 6 election, they were virtually unknown.
With the three-week campaign now officially over, the same thing could be said today.
Tajikistan's presidential election was never expected to bring any surprises -- from the beginning Emomali Rahmon was expected to run away with victory and earn a fourth term. But even by the standards of its previous one-sided presidential contests, Tajikistan's 2013 vote is particularly unchallenging for its longstanding leader.
This campaign has been all about Rahmon.
While the incumbent's image can be seen everywhere -- on giant billboards, administrative buildings, and public transport -- other candidates' modest campaign posters compete for space on the walls of small shops, at the occasional bus stop, and on side-street bulletin boards.
While Rahmon officially bowed out of the campaign, arguing that he was too busy attending to presidential duties, he travelled extensively throughout the country opening new schools and factories and taking part in charity events.
Other candidates made do with just 30 minutes of national airtime each to present their platforms, and a one-off televised debate that took place on November 4, the last day of the campaign.
Praise From The Challengers
Even when given the opportunity to meet face-to-face with voters during the tens of collective town-hall meetings set up by the Central Election Commission, the challengers often took the time to praise Rahmon's policies, and avoided criticizing the incumbent.
During a meeting in Dushanbe, for example, Communist Party candidate Ismoil Talbakov praised Rahmon's "undeniable" role in bringing peace and stability in Tajikistan.
Socialist Party candidate Abduhalim Ghafforov acknowledged Rahmon's service over the past two decades, saying he had turned Tajikistan "from an undeveloped country into a developing nation."
Candidates even stopped short of explicitly calling on people to vote for them. Instead, they repeatedly urged voters to support "the most suitable candidate," a phrase Rahmon's campaign uses to describe the president.
And when the campaign came under outside criticism for being centered on Rahmon alone, some challengers jumped to the president's defense.
On October 22, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election-observer mission noted that while state-controlled media extensively covered Rahmon's activities, and large posters bearing his portraits were seen all around the country, the campaign materials of the five candidates were not visible anywhere.
Paraschiva Badescu, the head of the OSCE's election observation mission in Tajikistan, told RFE/RL that the election campaign lacked genuine debate:
"The campaign was rather quiet," Badescu said, "with no visible campaigning [by candidates], except by the president."
Following the criticisms, some candidates argued otherwise, saying the campaign was fair and transparent.
'No Complaints Here'
"I didn't have a single problem [in the election campaign]," Agrarian Party candidate Tolibbek Bukhoriev told Tajik media.
As the campaign drew to a close, criticism uttered by the challengers was muted at best.
Communist candidate Talbakov, for example, said the 20 days of official campaigning were not enough to properly promote his program. "I wish we had 30 to 40 days," he said.
"We were not allowed to place our posters in any building," Democrat Party candidate Saidjafar Ismonov said. "Wherever we put the posters, they were soon removed."
Both Ismonov and Talbakov expressed overall satisfaction with the election process, saying they had successfully managed to present themselves to voters.
Nevertheless, ahead of the vote, observers and voters alike appeared to struggle to single out individual candidates and what they stood for.
"I don't know any candidate other than Rahmon. I vaguely know [Economic Reforms Party candidate] Olim Boboev because he once was a transport minister, and he appears on television sometimes," a Dushanbe resident told RFE/RL midway. "But I'm not familiar with his or any other candidate's programs."
Nizom Nurjonov, a retired art critic, said actually he does not trust unknowns. "I have never heard of them before," Nurjonov said. "Maybe they are all good people. But I don't know them. God knows about their programs."
RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.