WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 467, October 05, 2006
TAJIKS' ELECTION CHOICES ALREADY LIMITED By Gulnora Amirshoeva and Saodat
Asanova in Dushanbe, and Madina Saifiddinova in Khujand
ISLAMISTS SHUN ELECTION WITH EYE TO FUTURE Central Asia's only Islamic party
wants to reposition itself at a greater distance from the Tajik government, but
without alienating anyone. By Dadojan Azimov in London
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TAJIKS' ELECTION CHOICES ALREADY LIMITED
By Gulnora Amirshoeva and Saodat Asanova in Dushanbe, and Madina Saifiddinova
Campaigning is officially under way for Tajikistan's presidential ballot in a
month's time, but there is little chance of a dynamic election race since three
major opposition parties are not putting forward candidates.
Few doubt that President Imomali Rahmonov will win the November 6 ballot after
14 years in power. His People's Democratic Party, PDP, dominates parliament
although two others, the Communist Party and the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP,
have a handful of seats between them, and there are five more parties outside
Three of the main opposition parties including the IRP have backed away from
contesting the landmark November 6 election because they see little chance of
Many say they are in no position to compete because the Rahmonov regime has
marginalised them and harassed and detained leading members. But critics say
they have failed to build support among the electorate, and a boycott offers
them a convenient excuse to avoid humiliating defeat.
Opposition parties contested the 2005 parliamentary election separately, but
worked cohesively in an umbrella group pressing for fair election practices.
Earlier in 2006, there was talk of forming a broad election coalition to field
one or more candidates for the presidency, but the effort dissipated.
At least one true opposition figure - Mirhusein Narziev of the Socialist party
- is planning to contest the election, along with Rahmonov and five other
candidates who are seen either as little threat or as stalking horses for the
Whatever the opposition does, IWPR enquiries around the country suggest that
voters remain naturally averse to any risk nine years after the end of a bloody
civil war, and few see any viable alternative to the incumbent Rahmonov.
A CLEAR RUN FOR THE PRESIDENT
Rahmonov has been head of state since late 1992 and was elected president in
1994. Re-elected in 1999, he changed the constitution to give himself seven
years in office instead of five. That should have been his last term, but in
2003 a national referendum removed the constitutional limitation to allow him
another two shots at the job, which could leave him in place until 2020.
Previous presidential elections saw some fairly serious challengers
disqualified. This time round, there is no weighty candidate apart from the
Rahmonov was formally put forward as a candidate when the PDP held a party
congress on September 23.
A few days earlier, he had toyed with journalists, telling them he had not
decided whether to give it another go.
"It's no longer the early Nineties, and there are many talented young people in
the country," said the president.
MAJOR OPPOSITION FORCES DUCK OUT
Unlike Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, there are still real political parties in
Tajikistan, and the most serious opposition players could have been expected to
field candidates, jointly or separately. That has not happened - they have
accepted defeat before the start of campaigning.
Of the opposition parties, the IRP stands out as Central Asia's only legal
Islamic party, as Tajikistan's main opposition group, and as the third most
electable political force after the PDP and Communists.
Earlier this year, the IRP indicated that it would probably run but had not
decided on the right tactics. But on September 25, the party decided that it
would not after all be fielding a candidate. Unlike some other parties, the IRP
is not boycotting the election exercise as a whole - it wants to send election
Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri said part of the reason for withdrawing was "the
absence of clear legislation governing elections, and also the lack of trust
between the main political forces taking part".
He also suggested that the party's Islamic nametag could make it a liability
for the country's reputation abroad.
"In recent election campaigns, it was apparent that a number of politicians
were deliberately portraying the situation to make it seem that all of the
country's successes came from the development of [secular] democracy, and all
its problems came from the dissemination of religious ideas," he said.
During the civil war, the IRP was the major driving force in the United Tajik
Opposition, UTO, a guerrilla force of Islamists and others that operated out of
bases in Afghanistan and battled the Rahmonov regime until a 1997 peace deal
that was brokered by Russia, Iran and the United Nations.
As part of the peace arrangements, the IRP was accepted into the political
mainstream and was awarded a quota of government posts. The party has distanced
itself from radical Islamic theology of groups such as the outlawed
However, in elections since 1997, the IRP has failed to broaden its appeal
among voters, many of whom remain suspicious of its Muslim identity and its
association with certain southern and eastern parts of the country. While the
party has steered clear of open attacks on the Rahmonov administration, the
authorities have clipped the IRP's wings by arresting and harassing activists.
Of the other opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party
are divided and in disarray. Each has a schismatic faction fielding a
presidential candidate while the old guard is boycotting the election. The
Social Democrats are not standing, either.
The main Democratic Party faction led by longstanding party leader Mahmudruzi
Iskandarov announced on September 24 that it was refusing to take part in the
ballot, because current electoral legislation was so flawed as to preclude a
fair, transparent or democratic vote.
At the party congress which took the questions, delegates agreed that the
election result was a foregone conclusion so it was pointless standing.
"The institutions of state will use every method to achieve victory for one
person," said a statement issued by the congress, referring to Rahmonov.
However, a dissenting faction calling itself Vatan (Homeland) led by Masud
Sobirov emerged earlier this year, and on September 17 said its deputy chairman
Tabarali Ziyoev would be running for the presidency.
The Tajik justice ministry, which is responsible for registering political
parties, had so far recognised Iskandarov's faction as the legal one - even
though he was sentenced to 23 years imprisonment in 2005 on charges of
corruption and terrorism. His conviction was seen by many as a way of getting
rid of a powerful figure who had fallen out with Rahmonov earlier in the year.
Members of the Iskandarov faction believe that although they are still the
official party, the creation of a rival group was engineered by figures within
"Those behind this faction sense that they are backed by an enormous power,
which will support them even when they are in breach of the law and the party's
statute," said the Democrat's branch chief in Dushanbe Rajabi Mirzo.
Rahmatullo Valiev, the Democrats' deputy chairman and de facto leader in
Iskandarov's absence, suggested that Vatan was being backed "directly or
indirectly" by the governing PDP.
In a surprise move, the justice ministry reversed its position on September 29
and decreed that Vatan was a legitimate party, with Sobirov as its leader.
Iskandarov's party was struck off the list.
A ministry official explained the volte-face by saying Vatan was operating in
accordance with the Democratic Party's own rules.
The Iskandarov faction issued a statement on October 1 denouncing the decision
as "totally illegal".
Sobirov also succeeded in getting the culture ministry to suspend publication
of the party newpaper, Adolat, which is presently controlled by his rivals. He
said it would resume once the "internal dispute" had been sorted out within the
Another opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, announced it too was
boycotting the vote on September 24. The party is relatively small, but carries
some weight because of its leader Rahmatullo Zoirov, a former adviser to
President Rahmonov on constitutional law who is now one of his most vocal
Zoirov's parting of the ways with the president was over the 2003 referendum
which changed the constitution to allow Rahmonov two more terms in office, and
the party continues to argue that the change was unlawful and that the upcoming
election is therefore invalid.
In announcing the boycott, Zoirov said elections in Tajikistan are now
controlled entirely by the government with scant regard for the law.
"In formal terms, a multi-party system does exist, but it has not translated
into political pluralism," he said. "Elections [here] are not a demonstration
of the people's will."
While welcoming the IRP's decision to stand aside, Saifullo Safarov, the deputy
director of the presidential Strategic Studies Centre, is dismissive of the
other groups' refusal to take part.
"The election boycott by other parties is just a way of absolving them of
responsibility for assuming a greater role in society," he told IWPR.
SOCIALISTS AND COMMUNISTS WILL STAND
The Socialists are in a similar position to the Democrats, having divided into
two opposing camps in December 2004, when Abduhalim Gafforov and Kurbon Vosiev
convened a special congress to expel Mirhusein Narziev as party leader.
The justice ministry quickly recognised Gafarov as the new leader, while
Narziev and other opposition figures claimed that the coup was a plot to
undermine the party ahead of the February 2005 parliament election.
"The government is doing everything to weaken the opposition," a member of the
Narziev faction told IWPR recently. "They are counting on Gafforov. He is their
Narziev continues to lead his own faction, and both he and Gafforov have been
put forward as presidential candidates by their respective supporters.
"We intend to submit our [application] documents to the justice ministry, the
Central Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court," said Narziev.
Somewhere between the opposition and the pro-government camp stands the
Communist Party, which has decided to field its leader Ismail Talbakov as a
The Communists have five seats in parliament and claim a membership of 45,000,
but this support is rooted in an older generation who look back fondly to the
Soviet era, and it will wane over time. Politically, the party has avoided
confrontation with Rahmonov and the PDP.
Kuybek Oshurbekov, the Communists' deputy leader in the southeastern Badakhshan
region, told IWPR, "Our goal is not to win, but to come second after Rahmonov."
MINOR PARTIES OFFER SIDESHOW
As well as Rahmonov, the Communists' Talbakov and the two Socialist rivals, two
more candidates have emerged so far: the Agrarian Party's leader Amirkul
Karakulov, and Olimjon Boboev, who heads the Party of Economic Reforms.
Neither man is well known as a politician - Karakulov is deputy head of the
Academy of Agrarian Sciences, and Boboev rector of the Transport Institute -
and it remains unclear whether they will be able to gather the 160,000
signatures a presidential hopeful needs in order to be accepted by the Central
Both parties are small, and were only founded late last year. The speed with
which the justice ministry registered them suggested that they were government
creations designed to create the appearance of political pluralism.
LIMITED CHOICE FOR VOTERS - BUT DO THEY WANT MORE?
Voting patterns in Tajikistan are still informed to an extent by distinct
regional divisions, which were entrenched during the civil war.
The south of the country - the Hatlon region - is the heartland of the PDP and
Rahmonov. A majority of people here whom IWPR interviewed in an unscientific
poll of voters' intentions said they would back the incumbent.
The south saw some of the bitterest fighting during the early, intense phase of
the conflict, in which militias allied with politicians like Rahmonov were
pitted against groups supporting the Islamists and then UTO. That legacy has
left the IRP with pockets of support here, while most other areas of the south
are PDP bastions.
According to independent journalist Ahmad Ibrohimov, the PDP and the IRP are
the only active political forces in the region.
"It seemed to me that the only real competition would be between the candidates
of these two parties. Personally, I'd like to see IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri as
a presidential candidate, but they have refused to take part in the election.
People in Tajikistan just regard the Islamists as mullahs," he said.
Many voters said they were unfamiliar with the other candidates.
"The local branches of other parties barely function in the regions, and they
do not campaign. And even the few members that they do have express gratitude
to Rahmonov. The opposition has neither resources nor a political
track-record," said Sukhrobshoh Farrukhshoev, a resident of Kurghon-Tepa.
Although Rahmonov's southern-backed administration emerged from Soviet rule in
Tajikistan, the republic was traditionally governed not by the south but by the
north, its economic powerhouse. Despite attempts by northern politicians to
claw back power in the Nineties, the southerners have remained in control and
the north - Soghd region - is largely excluded from government.
Many people here said they would choose the incumbent either through inertia or
because they could not see a better option.
"I can only vote for the current president," said Tahmina Ubaidullaeva from the
Ganch district, explaining that given the choice she would have gone for the
IRP or Social Democrats, if they had not ruled themselves out.
Dilrabo Zohirova, who lives in the north's administrative centre Khujand, said
she did not know the other candidates, but even if she did she feared they
would be worse. "If a new president comes to power, another ten years will go
by while he provides for himself and his relatives, and only then will he start
thinking about the development of the state," she told IWPR.
Political analysts interviewed by IWPR said that many voters were apathetic and
would choose the easiest option. An example of this is Shoira Pochoeva of
Khujand, who said she would let her husband decide who she should vote for.
In the same city, though, another resident had a positive reason for not
exercising his vote. Mirzorahmat Pulatov plans to cross all the names out on
the ballot paper, "Then my conscience will be clean."
Badakhshan, a remote and sparsely populated high mountain region in the
southeast of the country, has tended to remain at some distance from political
ferment in the rest of the country.
Boymamad Alibakhshev, a political analyst in the region, said there was no
alternative to the president. "Many people regarded Iskandarov as a rival, but
he did not meet these expectations," he said.
Like many voters in Badakhshan, Alibakhshev stressed the importance of economic
development for the region.
"Rahmonov is well known internationally and has great experience. He builds
strategic facilities, roads and hydroelectric power stations, and in years to
come these projects will earn serious money," he said. "So Rahmonov should
remain president for another term to complete all these projects."
Taigunshoh Musofirshoev, a lecturer at the university in Khorog, the region's
main town, cited the president's role in opening up Badakhshan's communications
with the rest of the world. The region has poor road connections with the rest
of Tajikistan, but work is under way to improve these and create better trade
links with neighboring China.
"At present, there is no alternative to Rahmonov," he concluded.
Saodat Asanova is IWPR country director in Tajikistan. Gulnora Amirshoeva and
Madina Saifiddinova are IWPR contributors in Dushanbe and Khujand, respectively.
ISLAMISTS SHUN ELECTION WITH EYE TO FUTURE
Central Asia's only Islamic party wants to reposition itself at a greater
distance from the Tajik government, but without alienating anyone.
By Dadojan Azimov in London
A decision by Tajikistan's leading opposition party to opt out of this
November's presidential election took many observers by surprise. While some
analysts argue that the Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, has made the wrong
decision, others argue that it is a smart move to help the party deal with a
change of leader and build more grassroots support.
Few observers see any chance that the IRP or any other party could defeat the
incumbent president, Imomali Rahmonov, in the November 6 poll.
The IRP, the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia, announced its decision
not to field a candidate after its leaders met on September 25. Earlier in the
year, it had signalled that it would stand.
The new chairman, Muhiddin Kabiri, told IWPR the decision was taken for two
main reasons, to do with the environment in which the election is taking place,
and with the party's wish not to stoke fears of an Islamist takeover in
Current legislation governing the way elections are run is "imperfect", he
said, without elaborating.
After Tajikistan became independent in 1991, the IRP was engaged in a five-year
armed conflict with the Rahmonov government, but a 1997 peace agreement brought
it legitimacy and a quota of government jobs.
The party has been at pains to dissociate itself with radical Islam of the kind
espoused by groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is outlawed in Tajikistan and
But Kabiri said the IRP's political opponents had tried to brand it as a danger
to the country's secular system of government.
"There is a psychological factor - some people believe that having an Islamic
party participate is a threat to democratic, secular values," he said. "They
say the Islamic factor scares off investors and hinders democratic development."
With the IRP out of the race, that argument no longer holds water, said Kabiri.
"We'll see how the democratic parties conduct the election without the Islamic
factor, and whether they'll be able to hold a fair and transparent ballot. It
will show whether the Islamic factor hinders the holding of elections, or
whether it was just an excuse to remove one's opponents," he said.
He added that as a former combatant side in the Tajik civil war, the IRP wanted
to avoid giving the impression that it was in confrontation with the current
The IRP was also swayed by "the unfavourable international situation and the
negative attitude towards Islam", he said.
Kabiri stressed that the IRP had not come under any pressure from Rahmonov's
administration to pull out.
"We made this decision independently - and in fact it was against the wishes of
the government, which wanted to see as many alternative candidates as
possible," he said.
Unlike the Social Democrats and the main wing of the Democratic Party, the IRP
is not formally boycotting the election, and plans to monitor the vote.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert on political Islam at the Carnegie Centre in
Moscow, is sceptical of Kabiri's claim. This decision was made "under pressure
from the authorities, even if the IRP won't admit it", he said.
Malashenko sees the IRP's decision as a tactical error because it could open
the way for more vocal Islamic groups to seek power.
"It was a big mistake. If moderate leaders don't take part in the political
process, then radicals will do so. Islam needs to be part of the political
establishment," he said.
By contrast, Vitaly Naumkin, another Moscow-based Central Asia-watcher who
heads of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Russia's Institute of
Oriental Studies, argues that the IRP had no need to prove its democratic
"The party is very respected and integrated into the government," he said.
Naumkin believes the IRP wanted to avoid another humiliating defeat at the
polls, as part of a strategy of building up support for the future.
Since rejoining the political process in 1997, the IRP has failed to capitalise
on its position as the main opposition force, partly because its Islamic title
and role in the civil war hinder it from winning new voters. In the last
parliamentary election held in February 2005, the Islamic party won just two of
the 63 seats in the legislature.
Now it has a free hand to reposition itself, according to Naumkin.
"This was a very intelligent move - it has shown that it is [a real] opposition
party. Many people thought the party leadership sold out to the government
after it signed the peace deal. This will help the party widen its social base,
and win back people who were unhappy that it had become too much of a 'party of
state'," he said.
Developing a more separate identity for the IRP will be good for democracy,
too, said Naumkin, adding, "It is important that an opposition should be
against the government, not identified with it."
Kabiri was only appointed chairman in September following the death of leader
Sayed Abdullo Nuri in early August. Nuri was an Islamic scholar who started out
as a Soviet dissident, led the IRP though the civil war years and later the
peace process, and exercised considerable moral authority over the party.
"Nuri was a leader with charisma," said Malashenko. "The loss of a charismatic
leader always brings about change. Nuri combined both the radical and moderate
tendencies in the party."
Kabiri is widely seen as a moderate and a moderniser, but there is continuity
in the leadership change since he ran the party throughout Nuri's months of
illness. Malashenko views him as "the most intelligent and able leader the
"Judging by [IRP] statements, no major changes are planned," said Zafar
Abdullaev, director of the Avesta News Agency in Dushanbe. "The party will grow
stronger because of the modernisation."
Ilhom Narziev, a Dushanbe-based political analyst, said the IRP had a lot to
play for, "The party has enormous potential in Tajikistan. The majority of
residents practice Islam, and there is always a chance that dissatisfaction
will express itself through Islam. Ultimately, its success will determined by
its ability to integrate into a largely secular society."
Narziev noted that the IRP was already focused on training its members and on
using the internet and print media.
Naumkin said the party was also working to expand out of its traditional
support-base in the valleys east of Dushanbe, partly by promoting charitable
"If the party relies on this strategy, then it will be able to expand out of
its own region into the north and to the Pamirs [southeast Tajikistan]," he
Naumkin added that the IRP has a tough job ahead of it as it seeks to adopt a
stronger line without alienating the government or the electorate.
"It has to attract the protest vote, and at the same time cooperate with the
government in opposing [Islamic] extremists. It has to come up with a strategy
to preserve its image as a moderate Islamic opposition party," he said.
He also sees international implications in the success or failure of the IRP,
"Tajikistan is important for the world as it serves as an example of normal
cooperation between an Islamic party and the government."
Dadojan Azimov is an IWPR intern in London.
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