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  Elections in Tajikistan: an unexpected path to a predictable outcome

Fabio Belafatti, Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies (Vilnius University, Oriental Studies Centre) and lecturer of Central Asian Politics
2013 11 08

The citizens of Tajikistan, one of the five post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, will vote to renew a seven-year long presidential mandate on Nov. 6th. Although the country has never had an election deemed free and fair by international observers[1] and president Emomali Rahmon (de-facto in power since 1992) is widely expected to be re-elected, this year’s electoral campaign had some unexpected twists that deserve in-depth analysis.

Background: Tajikistan’s economic and political situation

Tajikistan is the poorest country in the former Soviet Union. The post-Soviet economic collapse and an ensuing five-year long civil war between clan-based regional factions left the country in dire straits. Nowadays, an estimated 47% of the country’s GDP comes from remittances from emigrants, more than 800.000 of which work in Russia alone.[2] An estimated half of the Tajik men need to emigrate to sustain families back home.[3]

At the same time, a significant part of the country’s economic assets is believed to be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the president’s own family and by his clan, rooted in Rahmon’s hometown of Danghara.[4] This in turn fuels popular dissatisfaction and frustration towards what is perceived as predatory politics from a ruling élite that acts in complete disregard of the law and public interest.

Differently from countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, though, Tajikistan’s political system gives a slightly broader manoeuvring space to opposition forces and media. This is mostly the outcome of the 1997 peace agreement between the current ruling faction and the opposition, but also the result of weakness of the current administration, which prevents it from establishing an even more authoritarian regime. Part of the country is not entirely under central government control and a wide range of Islamist organizations with alleged links to former opposition fighters as much as to the Afghan Taliban regularly challenge the state’s monopoly of violence in the central-eastern part of the country.[5]

The electoral campaign: unexpected challengers

In such a context, observers were once again expecting to see Rahmon run virtually unopposed, with a disunited opposition either boycotting the election (as it did in 2006) or failing to present a strong, common candidate. The two main parties in the opposition, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) led by Muhiddin Kabiri and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by Rahmatullo Zoirov, have often showed signs of disagreement concerning the opposition strategy.

Given this background, many were surprised when the two parties created the Coalition of Reformist Forces and put forward the candidature of Oinihol Bobonazarova, instead of more seasoned politicians like Kabiri and Zoirov. Bobonazarova, 65, first woman to enter a presidential race in Tajikistan, is a human rights activist and director of an NGO that works especially with migrants’ rights. A former collaborator of the Soros foundation and the OSCE, she was put under house arrests in the early 1990ies for her opposition activity.

For many ordinary Tajiks, the candidature of a woman came as an unwelcome surprise.[6] In a conservative country where according to Amnesty International nearly half of the female population is regularly subject to violence and abuse,[7] what seemed especially surprising was the fact that an Islamist party decided to support Bobonazarova in her presidential bid. The reason for this is probably that the IRP is facing an image problem, divided as it is between a modernist faction led by Kabiri and more conservative, radical groups with alleged connections with insurgents in central-eastern regions.[8] Bobonazarova, a modern, western-oriented female candidate, against which it is far more difficult to fabricate politically motivated charges, was definitely a good choice for a party that needs to present itself in a more reassuring way to the voters.[9] Even more senior and more conservative leaders of the IRP such as Haji Akbar Turajanzoda understood this and expressed their full support for Bobonazarova.[10]

Significance of Bobonazarova’s bid

In a political landscape in which most opposition parties are believed to be artificial creations to justify Rahmon’s power, Bobonazarova’s challenge was probably the only meaningful sign of alternative. The significance of her candidature also lay in the fact that she represented a much-needed signal in favour of female participation and she brought the figure of intellectuals back to political prominence, after years of silence or compromise with the current regime.

According to Bobonazarova herself, the support of the IRP was especially important because it indicated the readiness of the Tajik society to accept a female candidate. Yet at the same time she made clear her intent to limit the influence of the Islamists, arguing that the Tajik society is far from willing to accept an Islamic state, and stressed the importance and the urgency to empower women in Tajikistan.[11]

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Bobonazarova’s program was her combined approach to political reform: in an interview with Radio Zamaneh she explained how economic reforms can only succeed if there is a change in the political system to make the government more accountable.[12] Therefore, she suggested that in case of victory she would serve as an “interim president” and step down after implementing key reforms. It is an approach almost unheard in a country used to seeing the same president for over 20 years.

Rahmon runs unopposed

Despite Tajikistan relative openness, the ruling élite is not willing at all to tolerate any realistic challenges. When these come from well-connected and powerful people inside the élite, the reaction can be brutal (as recently experienced by Zayd Saidov and Umarali Quvatov, once prominent political and economic figures who expressed their intention to organize opposition movements and are now under trial for what they say are politically motivated charges). It was therefore inevitable that Bobonazarova’s presidential bid would not be allowed to become a serious political threat.

Eventually, the united opposition forces failed to collect enough signatures for Bobonazarova, resulting in her sudden withdrawal from the race on Oct. 11th. According to a senior expert of Tajik politics,[13] the reasons for the failure to collect signatures are:

-  Artificial and ultimately illegal obstacles put by the government, both through harassment of opposition militants to delay and slow down the collection and, more importantly, by forbidding the gathering of signatures among immigrant workers,[14] a key base of support for the opposition (these aspects were repeatedly pointed out by Bobonazarova herself, who stated that “my rival was the entire government with all its agencies, including its law enforcement structures”)[15];

-  Lack of political engagement among the general population, unwillingness to take the risk to sign for real opposition candidates and fear of reprisals (or, one may argue, simple inaction due to decades of authoritarian politics); this is in turn closely connected with the current lack of political sophistication among large part of the Tajik population, due primarily to the dilapidation of the post-Soviet education system. The result is that, as our source put it, “there is no hope that [the youth] will be the agent for change at the time being. You may see ‘football riots’, religious extremist violence or (God forbid) even inter-ethnic violence in the future, but they will not be in any way organized and of serious threat to Mr. Rahmon’s regime”.[16]

-  Weakness of the opposition itself due to divisions between the two main parties, the IRP and the SDP, which resulted in diminished organizational capabilities.

As a result, Rahmon is set to run practically unopposed: although there are indeed other presidential candidates from smaller “opposition” parties, all of them are believed to be Rahmon’s sympathizers. Bobonazarova, the only real alternative to Rahmon, will stay out of the games altogether. 

Conclusions

The results of the Tajik presidential elections are probably already written, with Rahmon likely to win with percentages similar to those registered in the last elections (most likely over 76%, according to our source). Flawed elections have proven to be a powerful catalysis for popular dissatisfaction in Central Asia in the past years, and as the experience of the Arab Spring teaches, it is virtually impossible to forecast when dissatisfaction over economic inefficiencies, corruption and nepotism (all problems that are well perceived in Tajikistan) will reach a critical level and spiral out of control.

In Tajikistan, however, the reaction of the population is likely to be passive. One of the reasons is the above-mentioned lack of political engagement from the general public. Another one is the widespread fear of a second civil war, which leads many Tajiks to treasure peace. Last but by no means least, there is the migration factor, which acts as a powerful relief valve for social tensions, ensuring that angry and disappointed young Tajiks stay thousands of kilometres away from Tajikistan itself.

The regime is, however, playing a dangerous game: firstly because in the short term, the main guarantor of stability remains, ultimately, Russia’s ability and willingness to accept increasing amounts of Tajik migrants, something that is under question - to say the very least - with the current rise of nationalism in Russia.

Secondly, because in the medium term, stability depends on the ability to control Islamist insurgencies, and marginalizing the moderate IRP is only likely to draw more people towards more radical organizations (in the words of our source, the possibility that some frustrated young people join radical groups “is a near certainty, one which not only threatens the IRP but peace and stability in Tajikistan as a whole”).[17]

Lastly, because in the long term also the stability granted by the fear of a second civil war will disappear, as the high fertility rate alters the demographic balance of the country in favour of new generations that did not even see the conflict. By then, Rahmon (or his successor) may find himself regretting the authoritarian drive he is giving to the country. 

[1] Background information available from the OSCE website: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/tajikistan

[2] RIA/Novosti estimates, http://en.ria.ru/world/20130125/179026395.html

The total number of Tajik citizens working abroad is estimated between 1 and 2 million people.

[3] World Bank, Migration and Remittance Flows in Europe

[4] See for example Freedom House 2013 assessment of national governance and corruption: Tajikistan Final.pdf

[5] For a comprehensive analysis of the current situation with Islamist insurgency, see International Crisis Group: The Changing Insurgent Threats.pdf

[6] See for example Global Voices’ report, woman-can-become-president

[7] Amnesty International, reported on BBC.co.uk, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8375617.stm

[8] Kabiri, supported also by the very founder of the IRP, Said Abdulloh Nuri, succeeded him in 2006 and was reconfirmed in Aug. 2013. Despite being rather popular, he is often accused of being too soft with the regime, not sufficiently Islamic and too modernist. He is the first leader of the IRP to have a secular education instead of the traditional, Islamic one. See for background: tajikistans_islamic_party_see_a_renaissance

[9] RFE/RL, tajikistan-islamists-woman-candidate

[10] Mark Vinson, Tajikistan’s Opposition Nominates Presidential Candidate. http://www.ecoi.net/local_link/259101/384687_de.html

[11] Bobonazarova’s interview with Radio Zamaneh: http://www.radiozamaneh.com/104375#.Ul--mxvbNNk.twitter (English version: interview_w_reformist_candidate.pdf)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Author’s interview with senior expert of Tajik politics, carried out between Oct. 30th and Nov. 4th. The source whished to remain anonymous. 

[14] In a rather bizarre twist of constitutional logic, migrants will be allowed to vote but could not provide signatures. Migrants are an estimated 25 to 50% of voters in Tajikistan. 

[15] RFE/RL, “Tajik opposition candidate bows out of the race”: tajik-opposition-president

[16] Author’s interview, see note 13

[17]Ibid.

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