Clare Nuttall in Astana -
With no serious challengers, President Emomali Rakhmon is expected to be easily re-elected in Tajikistan's November 6 presidential election, despite growing dissatisfaction over the high levels of poverty and corruption in Central Asia's poorest country.
Six candidates, including Rakhmon, have been registered to run, but all five of the rival candidates are little known and international observers say their campaigns have been virtually invisible. As a result, Rakhmon, who has ruled the country for two decades, is expected to cruise to another victory, which will hand him seven more years in power.
Meanwhile, would-be candidates with the potential to gather more support have been excluded from the race. Oynihol Bobonzarova from the Islamic Revival Party (IRP) - who may have posed the biggest challenge to the incumbent - did not manage to collect the 201,000 supporter signatures needed to qualify. The human rights activist was a surprise choice for the IRP, which represents Tajikistan's Islamic main opposition, and had pledged before the election that if she won she would rule only temporarily while she introduced reforms. However, she claimed police had harassed supporters to prevent them gathering the signatures.
Another potential rival, businessman and former industry minister Zayd Saidov, was arrested in May on embezzlement charges, shortly after co-founding the New Tajikistan party. Other charges have since been added.
In its October 22 interim report, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) contrasted Rakhmon's highly publicised visits to the Tajik regions, which were "extensively and positively" covered by state media with the other candidates' campaigns. "Other than posters and billboards portraying the incumbent president, there has been no visible campaign ... so far," the report complained.
However, while Rakhmon is unlikely to meet any setbacks in the election, there are growing signs of resentment in the country over Tajikistan's high levels of poverty and the contrasting privilege of the elite. Tajikistan remains the CIS region's poorest country, and despite a recent increase in GDP per capita to over $1,000, more than a third of the population remained below the breadline in 2012.
The disparity with the elite was highlighted recently when the 16-year-old son of a high-ranking official fled to Germany after a fatal hit and run in the capital Dushanbe. Rasul Amonullo, the son of Tajik Railways head Amonullo Hukumov - a close Rakhmon ally - is believed to have been behind the wheel of q brand new BMW when it hit another car killing the driver and two passengers. The events sparked an online storm within Tajikistan, with social media users venting their anger over the incident and demanding the president intervene personally to ensure justice.
Tajikistan has a high level of corruption; the country was ranked 157th out of 174 countries on Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. The president's family and cronies control much of the economy, including Tajikistan's largest and most lucrative business, the Tajik Aluminium Company (Talco). According to US Embassy cables published by Wikileaks, revenues from the plant "end up in a secretive offshore company controlled by the president, and the state budget sees little of the income."
The Talco factory is also responsible for around 40% of Tajikistan's electricity consumption. That loads strain onto the country's limited energy resources and forces state power company Barki Tojik to ration electricity in winter, with many households having heat and light for just a few hours a day.
Rakhmon, a former collective farm director, has ruled Tajikistan since 1992. His Moscow-backed forces defeated the United Tajik Opposition in the 1992-97 civil war, and he has since been elected president in 1999 and 2006. He won a 2003 referendum allowing him to serve for two further seven year terms, despite complaints from the opposition that the move was illegal. Under the current Tajik constitution, assuming Rakhmon is re-elected on November 7, this will be his final term as president.
There is speculation that Rakhmon may be grooming elder son Rustami Emomali as his successor. At just 25, Emomali is deputy head of Tajikistan's state customs service and is often seen on television alongside his father. Meanwhile, Rakhmon's daughter Ozoda, the eldest of his nine children, is now deputy foreign minister.
Rakhmon has used Tajikistan's army and security forces to maintain control over the deeply divided country since the civil war, although the Islamist opposition and local warlords continue to hold sway in remote regions. The Tajik government also has to contend with the threats posed by drug smugglers and insurgency from neighbouring Afghanistan, which may worsen after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.
Russia maintains a strong military presence in the country, and in October the parliament ratified an agreement extending the lease on Russia's main military base in the country until 2042. At the same time, Dushanbe has become increasingly reliant on China as an economic sponsor. Soft loans from Beijing have financed the reconstruction of Tajikistan's dilapidated roads and other infrastructure, with the contracts carried out by Chinese companies.
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