Rakhmon sidelines challengers to retain Tajik presidency

By bne IntelliNews November 7, 2013

bne -

Unsurprisingly, Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon has been re-elected for a fourth term with an overwhelming majority in the flawed election, preliminary results showed on November 7.

While Tajikistan may be the poorest country of the former Soviet Union, its importance is set to grow as the region prepares for the Nato troop withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan in 2014, China battles with Russia to increase its influence, and the government presses on with plans for a giant dam that could inflame tensions in an already jittery part of the world where water is an increasingly precious resource.

Rakhmon took 83.6% of the vote in the November 6 election on a turnout of over 86%, according to preliminary results released by the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda of Tajikistan (CCER). Runner-up Ismoil Talbakov, the Communist Party candidate, took just 5%.

Analysts had complained ahead of the election that none of the five candidates that made it onto the ballot to challenge the incumbent enjoyed either a high profile within Tajikistan or ran active campaigns. As a result, Rakhmon actually increased his majority compared with the last election in 2006, when he was re-elected with 79.3% of the vote.

At a press conference in Dushanbe, international observers pointed to the lack of choice for voters. "While quiet and peaceful, this was an election without a real choice... Greater genuine political pluralism will be critical for Tajikistan to meet its democratic commitments," said Gordana Comic, who led the short-term Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observer mission.

The mission's post-election report criticized the registration process for weeding out credible opponents to the incumbent. "Restrictive requirements, including the unreasonably large number of signatures potential candidates must gather to qualify, present significant obstacles and are at odds with OSCE commitments and other standards for democratic elections," it reads.

The candidate put forward by the Islamic Revival Party (IRP), which came in second in Tajikstan's 2010 parliamentary elections, was seen as having the most potential to challenge Rakhmon. However, Oynihol Bobonzarova failed to collect the 210,000 signatures needed to qualify for the vote. She claimed police had harassed her supporters to prevent them gathering the signatures.

An earlier report from the OSCE/ODIHR in October also criticized unbalanced media coverage. While the president's pre-election activities were covered "extensively and positively," there had been "no visible campaign" from the other candidates, the observers claimed.

Rakhmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, was widely expected to cruise to victory, let alone without the inconvenience of serious challengers. 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. However, under the Tajik constitution this will be his final term as president.

Major challenges

Post-election, the main challenges for the Tajik government remain the same: lifting the country out of poverty, improving energy supplies for industry and households, and maintaining stability. Tajikistan remains the poorest country in the former Soviet Union, 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 country also suffers from rampant corruption - ranking 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."

There are also concerns about Tajikistan's security following the withdrawal of Nato forces from next-door Afghanistan next year, with widespread concerns that it will leave the region more vulnerable to the dual threats of terrorism and drug trafficking. Tajikistan is particularly at risk because of its long and porous border with Afghanistan.

Rakhmon's sometimes bizarre schemes - Dushanbe is home to the world's largest tea house - also threaten stability in the region. The president is pushing to build what will be the world's tallest dam at the Rogun hydropower plant. This is causing a serious rift between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which lies downstream on Central Asia's two great rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. The dam threatens to disturb the fragile balance of water management that has existed between the five Central Asian republics since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan also claims such construction is foolhardy in an earthquake-prone area.

In a region where change is seldom peaceful, that makes the issue of succession an ever-present worry. There is speculation that Rakhmon may be grooming his 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.

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