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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By Gulnora Amirshoeva and Saodat Asanova in Dushanbe, and Madina Saifiddinova 
in Khujand

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 
the legislature. 

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. 


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.


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 
the regime. 

"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. 


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."


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 
Electoral Committee. 

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. 


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.


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 
operates covertly.

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 
party has".

"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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