On their way to the polls on February 27, some residents of Tajikistan's capital passed an unprecedented variety of campaign posters, including those for the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), the most prominent alternative to President Imomali Rakhmonov's ruling party. But the posters appeared almost exclusively along the central boulevard, Rudaki, and there were no more than fifty of them. They could be seen as emblematic of the elections as a whole: real pluralism was superficial.
Preliminary voting results had not been made available at midday February 28. Voter turnout was officially listed at 87 percent. Meanwhile, IRP officials claimed that widespread vote rigging had taken place.
If the UN-OSCE election observation team deems these elections sufficiently democratic, Tajikistan will largely shed its image abroad as politically and militarily unstable. Instead, it will acquire a measure of long-elusive normalcy and begin receiving increased international credits. However, the final assessment may be tainted by political wishful thinking. Well before Election Day, some Dushanbe-based foreign observers were already referring to the election as the best so far in the Central Asian region, and the only one that would contain real elements of pluralism.
Clearly, the February 27 vote was not the near-total charade that was the November 6, 1999, presidential vote that returned President Rakhmonov to power. Then, obstructionist candidate registration procedures, widespread multiple voting, and severe restrictions on political parties and the media precluded a fair election.
This round, there were some indications of genuine democracy. Six parties competed for seats: the president's People's Democratic Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Democratic Party (Almaty platform), the Adolatkhoh (Justice) Party, and the IRP. To varying degrees, all parties were able to campaign and hold rallies without significant government interference. Several newspapers that had been banned in the last few years re-appeared suddenly in the weeks before Election Day, including those of the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Democratic Party (Almaty Platform), and the Communist Party. And all candidates had some minimal access to the otherwise closely guarded state media, although ruling party candidates and those who favored the president dominated the airwaves.
The government may have allowed these reforms because they posed only a negligible challenge to the ruling regime. Aside from the Communist Party, which advocates a Russia-Belarus union, the contending parties campaigned on strikingly similar platforms. Even the IRP stood little chance of gaining a majority in a fair run-off. After two and a half years of quarrelling over the implementation of the peace accord, the IRP is internally divided and its message muddled. Its platform fails even to mention Islam, previously the party's founding principle. IRP leaders are also sending mixed signals: Ali Akbar Turadjonzoda urged voters to support parliamentary candidates from the presidential party, and Said Abdullo Nuri personally broke the IRP's boycott of the November elections.
But weak opposition did not keep the government from illegally stacking the deck in its own favor. It maintained its ban on the Agrarian Party, annulled the registration of the Party of Justice and Progress, and continued to deny registration to the National Movement Party of Tajikistan. In December, the government suspended the Democratic Party (Teheran Platform), which had been allowed to participate in the presidential elections, alleging that the DP had falsified its membership lists, even though the party's registration had been valid since March.
It also eliminated from the running parties that had fielded presidential contenders and those that formed a Consultative Council of political parties that challenged constitutional increases in presidential powers. The government even forced the closure of the Dushanbe-based newspaper Junbish (The Movement), which had published the Consultative Council's views, through harassment and arbitrary denial of access to the state printing house.
The government also enforced candidate registration procedures selectively, eliminating those who posed solid alternatives to the ruling party or were unsupportive of the president. Among those excluded were Rakhmatullo Zoirov, chairman of the Party of Justice and Progress, and Khikmatullo Nasriddinov, chairman of the Agrarian Party. Arbitrary registration in Dushanbe alone disqualified fully two-thirds of the self-nominated candidates.
UNMOT's, scheduled staff reduction or complete withdrawal, scheduled for May, gives particular urgency to reforming the human rights violations that marred yesterday's elections. The OSCE, whose field presence will remain behind, should set benchmarks and a timetable for achieving judicial and police reform, protection of freedom of expression and association, and the establishment of an independent human rights center. Conditioning credits from the World Bank, the IMF, and the EBRD on human rights improvements would help achieve these goals. Without such efforts, the impression of pluralism will likely remain only as superficial as the posters along Rudaki.
Marie Struthers has been the Director of Human Rights Watch office in Tajikistan since 1997. She has a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. from lUniversite de Montreal.