Tajikistan’s Feeble Opposition Attacked Relentlessly Ahead of Weekend Vote
The only question to ask about Tajikistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections is whether the authorities will allow any opposition parties to win seats in the rubber-stamp body. A victory for the president’s party is guaranteed. But, just in case, authorities are making it almost impossible for anyone else to run.
Eight parties are fielding 288 candidates to contest 63 seats in parliament’s lower house on March 1. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by impartial observers.
During the previous election, in 2010, President Emomali Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 55 of the 63 seats. The only opposition party to enter parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), won just two seats. The other seats went to members of the loyal opposition—parties that bestow on Tajikistan the trappings of democracy, but kowtow to the president.
Ahead of the weekend vote, officials have resorted to a wide range of dirty tactics to ensure the ruling PDP wins by a landslide.
For starters, the Central Electoral Committee disqualified over half of the IRPT’s 160 proposed candidates – including Rakhmon’s former math teacher – on the grounds they allegedly failed their mandatory Tajik language test. Meanwhile, the State Television and Radio Committee blocked the IRPT’s attempt to air their promotional videos on television. An official explained to Asia Plus that the studio that produced the clips is not registered.
In Rudaki District, local officials informed three IRPT candidates on February 24 that they could not participate in the elections because they themselves had withdrawn. The would-be candidates say falsified letters sent by unknown persons cited “family reasons” and “disease” as motives for their withdrawal.
One state-appointed academic even likened members of the moderate IRPT – the only legal faith-based party in Central Asia – to terrorists.
Election officials have repeatedly denied foul play. Saidmurod Fattohzoda, the PDP’s first deputy chairman, told Radio Ozodi on February 23 that “all parties work under equal conditions.” In comments carried by the Ozodagon news agency, Fattohzoda promised “free, transparent and democratic elections,” stating that observers from other post-Soviet authoritarian states had always given Tajikistan’s polls a thumbs-up. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, has never declared a Tajik election “free and fair.”
The PDP’s campaign tactics do not suggest a party ruling with confidence. At a PDP rally on February 22, where civil servants and students were forced to participate, the doors were locked and attendees unable to leave. One described being treated like “caged animals.”
But opposition parties complain they are prohibited from even holding rallies.
"Groups of people, acting on behalf of local authorities, have disrupted our meetings. Local authorities slander us, intimidate candidates from our party and compel them to renounce their candidacy. Violations of the law are widespread,” Social Democratic Party (SDP) chair Rahmatillo Zoirov declared on February 25. He has accused the authorities of paying young people to deface opposition posters. Although the SDP polled just 0.8 percent of the vote back in 2010, Zoirov claims that in reality 15 percent of Tajiks support the party.
A number of candidates have been detained. Firdavs Sohibnazarov, SDP chair in the southern Huroson District, was arrested February 3 on embezzlement charges. Sohibnazarov has said the charges are intended to keep him from participating in the election. On February 10, the secret police snatched a member of the IRPT’s electoral committee, Jamoliddin Mahmoudov. A court quickly sentenced him to two months in jail for giving two guns to a friend back in 1996—thus, he will not be able to participate in Sunday’s poll.
So when the ballots are counted after Sunday’s elections, it is merely a matter of how great the landslide will be. For Tajikistan’s embattled opposition, however, March 1 is unlikely to signal the end of government repression.