Tajikistan's upcoming presidential election is widely considered to be a ceremonial affair designed to keep the country's authoritarian president in office. But even in a race to lose, members of the opposition are finding it difficult to even enter the contest.
Presidential hopefuls are running out of time to submit the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to officially become candidates. And for opposition parties cut off from a major pool of supporters, the chances of clearing that last hurdle for registration are looking increasingly bleak.
A 25-day window was given for presidential nominees to meet all registration requirements, including gathering 210,000 signatures from eligible voters. But as the October 7 deadline approaches, no opposition parties have managed to hit the mark, prompting calls for an extension and questions about why the signatures of Tajik migrant workers are not being allowed.
By various estimates, 1 million to 2 million Tajiks leave the country every harvest season, mostly for Russia, to take jobs as seasonal laborers.
The vast majority of them are eligible voters and they make up a major portion of the opposition's support base in the country of 8 million. Yet during the registration campaign, their signatures are invalid in the eyes of the Tajik Central Election Commission.
One More Hurdle
Rahmatillo Zoirov, who heads the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDPT), says that disallowing migrants' signatures is a tremendous obstacle put in place by the government.
"We have such a political atmosphere in Tajikistan that it is impossible to gather 210,000 for an opposition nominee inside the country because the government controls all administrative tools," Zoirov says.
The main opposition candidate, Oinihol Bobonazarova, has been tapped to represent the United Reformist Forces, which merges the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), the Social Democratic Party, and various groups and individuals. But by October 3, Bobonazarova had collected only about 110,000 signatures.
Two other parties, the Communist Party and the Democratic Party, are also experiencing problems meeting the signature requirement, reportedly prompting them to request a deadline extension. Central Election Commission head Abdumannon Dodoev recently told Asia-Plus Blitz that his office had received the parties' requests and was considering them.
Dodev, however, has vehemently defended the Central Election Commission's rejection of migrants' signatures, and he denies that authorities are infringing on their rights.
The country's election law, Dodov says, "does not specify" the rights of Tajiks working abroad to provide signatures during the registration process.
Nearly Half Of The Electorate
Election officials have argued that the majority of Tajiks working in Russia do not have a registered address, making it impossible to verify the authenticity of their signatures. And it has been noted that there are no barriers to migrant workers participating in the November 6 election itself, by which time many will have returned to Tajikistan.
Nevertheless, opposition parties are crying foul over a practice they say affects up to 45 percent of Tajikistan's 4 million eligible voters.
The SDPT's Zoirov says some 60 percent of SDPT's reported 8,000 members are migrant workers based in Russia. IRPT officials say their party has thousands of members and supporters among migrant workers abroad.
According to recent Russian official figures, some 1.1 million Tajik citizens above the age of 18 currently live in Russia. While Russian statistics include only officially registered migrants, Zoirov estimates that up to 300,000 more Tajiks reside in Russia illegally.
"Along with those living in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Iran, nearly 2 million Tajik citizens in total are currently based outside Tajikistan," Zoirov argues.
Tajik migrant community leaders in Russia say the majority of Tajiks working in Russia tend to support opposition candidates.
"Tajik migrants are not actively involved or interested in politics, but they realize politics have a direct impact on their lives," says Karimjon Yorov, head of the Moscow-based Tajik migrants' organization Etmos. "They want change in Tajikistan. Since the migrants did not see improvements in their lives in the past 20 years, they want a new president. They want someone who brings improvements that affect migrants too."
Yorov acknowledges that the election is not at "the center of attention" for Tajiks living in Russia, but he says he has received hundreds of complaints and questions from "disheartened migrants who ask why their rights are being taken away in the election process."
Eight presidential nominees have been nominated by different political parties and other groups, including incumbent President Emomali Rahmon, who has been in power since November 1992. Rahmon was officially nominated on October 4 to represent the People's Democratic Party, and his reelection to a new seven-year term on November 6 is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
Written and reported by RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Salim Aioubzod