The concept of term limits seems like a contradiction in terms when it comes to Tajikistan. The Central Asian state’s constitution specifies that the president can serve only two consecutive terms. Yet the incumbent, Imomali Rahmon, has been in office since 1994, and is widely expected to secure another seven-year term when a presidential vote is held in November.
A referendum held in 2003 gives Rahmon the wiggle room needed to keep a tight grip on the presidency. That vote sought to modify some 60 articles in the 1994 constitution. Voters had a simple choice – either yes or no – for the whole package, which included measures to drop free health care and higher education. Buried in the package of amendments was a provision allowing the president to stand for a second consecutive term. In 1999, a referendum had already extended his term from five to seven years.
The measure passed with 93 percent of voters in favor, according to the Central Election Committee. The OSCE later said it had “concerns” about the vote’s transparency; and the US government said the process did not meet international standards.
Rahmon rose to power in 1992 and was elected president in 1994 during the country’s civil war. He won subsequent elections in 1999 and, following the referendum, in 2006. (Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers).
Rahmon’s ability to keep running depends on how the referendum-adjusted constitution is interpreted. Is Rahmon currently serving his second term, or does the change to the constitution reset the number of consecutive terms a president can serve, meaning Rahmon effectively ran for his first term in 2006?
Opposition leaders and other critics insist Rahmon doesn’t have a legal leg to run on. They tried to organize a boycott of the 2003 referendum, arguing that the exercise was designed to allow Rakhmon to extend his term in office. Presidential supporters, meanwhile, contend that the two-term limit applies only to elections following the 2003 adoption of the amendments.
Rakhmatillo Zoirov, a former legal advisor to the president, is among those who says Rahmon has already served two consecutive terms and has “no right” to run again this fall. In a detailed April 8 legal analysis for the Avesta news agency, Zoirov called any attempt to run again a “usurpation of power.”
Zoirov is one of Rahmon’s most vocal critics, and heads the opposition Social Democratic Party. The party has never won any seats in parliament, which government critics attribute to intimidation. Although there is no established connection, on March 15 the leader of the country’s million-plus ethnic Uzbek community – a Zoirov ally – disappeared without a trace.
Rahmon has not yet formally said he will run, but few observers in Dushanbe expect him to retire. Over the course of his two decades in power, Rakhmon has created a system in which he has no obvious rivals, and he has taken no visible steps to groom a successor. “It can be assumed that two or three other candidates will take part in the campaign. But there won’t be a real race,” political expert Parviz Mullojanov told EurasiaNet.org. “Alternative candidates will take part in the campaign only to gain political dividends and strengthen their image – in other words, for prestige.”
Within parliament, where Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) holds a large majority of seats, several pliant minority parties rarely vote against the president’s wishes. Only the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), with two of 63 seats, is seen as a legitimate opposition party in the legislature.
Another well-known political expert, Rashid Abdullo, expects that the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the Communist Party will nominate candidates. “Probably, the parties will declare their candidates at their congresses, in late summer or early fall, closer to the elections,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Abdullo expects Rahmon to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks.
During an April 10 visit to Brussels, Rahmon stressed his commitment to democratic reform. “As president of the country and the major guarantor of the constitution of the country, I will assure that the next presidential election that will take place in 2013 will be conducted in a free, transparent, and democratic manner,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted him as saying.
A series of attacks on the opposition over the past year create an impression that Rahmon’s supporters are leaving nothing to chance. On April 19, the deputy head of the IRPT was brutally beaten outside his Dushanbe home. Mahmadali Hayit's colleagues say the attack was “planned” and that Hayit, who reportedly lost a lot of blood, was targeted for his political activities.
Representatives of the pro-presidential PDPT contend there is no evidence that to link the attack on Hayit to his political activities, or to the looming presidential campaign. Yet pressure on the IRPT has become so common that few in the Tajik capital believe there is not a connection. The attack followed the murder of an IRPT leader last year and the trial, behind closed doors, of another on vague charges related to disturbances in the restive east. Given the increasing climate of fear, political analysts generally prefer to speak about these events off the record.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry suddenly stopped issuing visas at Dushanbe airport, less than a week before the IRPT was due to convene its party conference on April 27. Approximately 200 foreigners had been invited to participate. The change in airport visa procedures was designed to hamper the IRPT gathering, party leader Muhiddin Kabiri told the Asia-Plus news agency. The Foreign Ministry said the unexplained problem will be fixed by April 29.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.