Tajik elections reinforce tight grip of President Rakhmon

By bne IntelliNews March 1, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Opposition parties should pick up a few extra seats in Tajikistan's parliamentary elections on February 28, but initial counts showed the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan had, as expected, won a landslide, leading to opposition parties claiming widespread voter fraud.

According to AP, the initial tally after all of Sunday's votes were counted showed the government-backed party with 71.7%. The PDPT's overwhelming majority in the parliament and its control of most local authority positions reflects the tight hold its leader, President Emomali Rakhmon, has over the country. The main speculation about the elections had been whether the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Central Asia's only officially registered Islamic party, would overtake the Communists as the main opposition party. This it did, coming in second with 7.7% of the vote, the Central Elections Commission said. The Communist Party, the only other party with seats in the current legislature, came in third place with 7.2%. The election commission did not immediately provide a breakdown for how many parliamentary seats each party would receive, but said two parties not represented in the current parliament would gain a seat each despite not exceeding the 5% threshold for party-list seats.

With a charismatic young leader and sufficient funds to cover the $1,500 registration fee for numerous candidates, the IRPT is hoping to increase its two seats in the current parliament to 10. Since taking over in 2006, Muhiddin Kabiri has sought to allay fears the party wants to create an Islamic republic in Tajikistan and extend its support base from traditional strongholds of Islamic resistance to city dwellers, businesspeople and women.

All eight of Tajikistan's political parties fielded candidates for the elections, with a total of 226 running for office. 153 are competing for Tajikistan's 41 single-mandate constituencies, while a further 73 candidates have registered to run in a single nationwide constituency which will decide the remaining 22 seats on a proportional representation basis. Local elections are due take place on the same day. The president's eldest son, 22-year-old Rustam Emomali, is running for a seat on Dushanbe city council as a PDPT candidate.

Rakhmon himself publicly called for the elections to be conducted in a fair and transparent manner - something that didn't happen in either 2000 or 2005. And international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were due to give their verdict on Monday, March 1 on the election's fairness. Turnout reached 85.2%, election officials said after polls closed, down only slightly from the colossal figure of more than 90% officially recorded in the last polls in 2005.

A report from the OSCE described campaigning as "low key," but there were complaints by opposition parties that their campaigns have been obstructed by the authorities. Complaints include "allegations of police interference and use of state resources by the ruling party for campaign purposes".

High marks

Surprisingly, given Tajikistan's position as the poorest of the post-Soviet countries, a survey carried out by IFES (the International Foundation for Electoral Systems) reveals a reasonable degree of contentment with the current situation. Some 68% of respondents said they were either "somewhat satisfied" or "very satisfied" about the general situation in Tajikistan, with over half saying this was because the country was in a state of peace.

Despite Tajikistan's GDP per capita of just $554 (2007 UN data), 52% of respondents described the current economic situation as "fairly good" and 66% of respondents thought it would improve in the next 12 months.

The top concern of those surveyed was unemployment, which is estimated at over 80% in parts of the country and has resulted in a mass migration especially of young men. Poor provision of electricity, gas and water were another source of dissatisfaction, while others cited low living standards.

With a victory for the PRPT a foregone conclusion, the campaign has been overshadowed in Tajikistan by the government's main agenda - construction of the Roghun hydropower plant. The cash-strapped government has launched a Soviet-style fundraising process, getting employees at government offices and state-owned enterprises to "donate" their salaries to the cause. Other issues of concern to the population include support for labour migrants, creation of new job opportunities, healthcare, education, support for the agriculture and industry sectors and combating corruption.

But while little is likely to change as a result of the elections themselves, a worrying trend has emerged in the launch of several lawsuits against independent Tajik media in the run-up to the vote.

300,000 somoni (€49,000) damages have already been awarded against weekly newspaper Paykon by a Dushanbe court in a libel suit brought by government agency Tajikstandart. Three other independent newspapers, Asia-Plus, Farazh and Ozodagon now face a combined €900,000 lawsuit brought by three senior judges. "With just weeks to go to parliamentary elections on February 28, there is clearly an all-out drive to intimidate news media and get them to censor their coverage of state authorities," media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a statement February 1. "If successful, the lawsuits bankrupt media outlets, leaving those critical of the government without a voice. This would have repercussions for the country long after the elections are past."

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