Tajikistan President Reelected in Vote Marred by “Significant Shortcomings”
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has sailed to victory again after a poll marked by the absence of competition and other shortcomings, international election observers said today.
With Tajikistan's election officials claiming an 86.6 percent turnout, Rakhmon garnered 83.6 percent of votes, installing him as president for another seven years, to 2020.
Rakhmon faced five placid competitors who the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said hardly bothered to campaign. The five were widely seen as supportive of the incumbent, running to give the November 6 election a veneer of plurality. Rakhmon’s closest rival, the Communist Party’s Ismoil Talbakov, won five percent of the vote, the state-run Khovar news agency reported early on November 7.
An ODIHR monitoring mission said the elections were peaceful, but noted "serious problems" with ballot box stuffing, authorities interfering in the count, and a count that "often lacked transparency." ODIHR also described “a lack of pluralism and genuine choice.”
“Extensive state media coverage of the official activities of the incumbent provided him with a significant advantage,” ODIHR said in a November 7 statement:
"While quiet and peaceful, this was an election without a real choice," said Gordana Comic, the Special Coordinator who led the short-term OSCE observer mission. "Being in power requires abiding by OSCE commitments, not taking advantage of incumbency, as we saw. Greater genuine political pluralism will be critical for Tajikistan to meet its democratic commitments."
The campaign lacked the political debate necessary for a competitive campaign environment, the observers conclude. The authorities did not provide safeguards against the misuse of state resources and the distinction between the state and political parties was often blurred.
Genuine candidates were prevented from participating, Human Rights Watch said last month: “Prosecuting, beating, and holding opposition leaders incommunicado are an affront to the idea of fair elections. And for an election to be free and fair, voters need to have a genuine choice.”
Weeks after announcing political ambitions this spring, a popular businessman was jailed on what supporters believe are trumped-up charges. Other critics have described death threats. The only serious opposition candidate still around by October said authorities had intimidated her supporters, preventing her from gathering the necessary signatures to register. On the lack of an opposition candidate, ODIHR said, “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.”
Previous recommendations have gone ignored, ODIHR added.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s regional representative, Ivar Dale, who also monitored the vote, said such “pre-determined election results are no proof of stability.”
“Common to Rakhmon and several other Central Asian leaders is that they believe stability and security is dependent on their personal leadership and the complete suppression of critical voices,” said Ivar Dale. “Sadly, the opposite is true. Locally, it is considered something of a taboo to speak of the fact that these aging leaders eventually will pass, but it is clear that they will leave behind a population with no experience in healthy political debate, after decades of democratic stagnation. In many ways, they have done little except postpone real independence for their people following the collapse of the Soviet Union, causing great uncertainty about the future."
The trouble the authorities took to prevent a pluralistic and open election suggests deep paranoia. Ironically, Rakhmon would likely have won a fair vote. After 21 years in power, he is the most recognizable politician in the country. And many Tajiks fear change, recalling the civil war of the 1990s. But that’s little consolation for critics and civil society groups, who complain they have no chance to be heard in a system built to keep one man in power indefinitely.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.