Tajikistan’s parliamentary vote to consolidate ruling party under president’s watchful eye

By Peter Leonard, AP
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tajikistan votes under president’s watchful eye

KURGANTEPPA, Tajikistan — Huge posters of Tajikistan’s president adorn the facade of the main polling station in this provincial town, as if to remind voters that he will remain in charge regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary election.

An ascendant Islamic party may grab a handful of extra seats in this impoverished country on Afghanistan’s northern border. But the main government-backed party is set to coast to the easiest of victories, and President Emomali Rakhmon’s two-decade grip on power is to remain as strong as ever.

Official turnout was healthy across this ruggedly mountainous country of 7 million, despite lackluster media coverage ahead of the vote and limited public awareness of the candidates running. The Central Elections Commission said that 85 percent of the country’s 3.5 million eligible voters had cast ballots.

Warning about the potential for fraud, opposition parties complained that their observers were prevented from fully monitoring the vote. International monitors were to issue their assessment Monday.

Rakhmon, in office since 1992, runs Tajikistan with a heavy hand. And more than a decade after a devastating five-year civil war, Tajikistan is still struggling to provide basic goods and services to its people.

The governing Rakhmon-led People’s Democratic Party, which now holds 52 of the 63 seats in parliament, is nonetheless expected to run away with the election.

In Kurganteppa, a town of 85,000 people set in the lush Vakhsh valley just north of the border with Afghanistan, the local produce market swarmed Sunday with shoppers, and dozens of taxi drivers noisily jostled for customers in the main square. A brief stroll away, people were trickling in and out of the polling station midmorning.

This town was one of the worst hit by the civil war, and the Islamic Revival Party is hoping it will be one of the main places it can make inroads.

Most of Tajikistan’s largely Sunni Muslim population is secular-minded, and the party wears its religious cloak lightly, stressing the country’s Muslim identity while eschewing calls for the creation of an Islamic republic.

During the war, Kurganteppa was a key stronghold for the loose coalition of Islamic fighters and nationalists that battled elements of the former Soviet elite, which included Rakhmon.

Yet even more so than in the capital, Rakhmon’s portraits are ubiquitous here, which has helped tip the balance toward his party.

“It may not be the best party, but in our situation it is the only one that can do the job that needs to be done,” said retiree Abdul Wakhidov.

Even so, the Islamic Revival Party predicts it will win at least 10 seats nationwide, if the voting is fair, although leader Muhiddin Kabiri said Sunday that reports are emerging of irregularities.

“Our observers say … they are not being permitted to take photographs or film the voting process,” Kabiri said after voting in the capital, Dushanbe.

Those grievances were echoed by the leader of the Social Democratic Party, one of the eight parties in the running. “There have been reported cases of vote observers’ rights being curtailed,” Rakhmatillo Zoyirov said.

The 11 seats in parliament not held by the governing party include two for the Islamic Revival Party, four for the government-supporting Communist Party and five by independents.

The election campaign itself has been overshadowed in state media by a publicity drive encouraging people to buy shares in the ambitious Roghun hydroelectric plant, which the government hopes will allow the country to meet its own electricity needs and to export power to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In one 10-foot-wide (3-meter-wide) placard on the front of the polling station in Kurganteppa, Rakhmon is pictured wearing a hardhat against a backdrop of the planned site for the plant and pointing into the distance.

This rhetoric has paid dividends for the governing party.

The People’s Democratic Party “is our well-being, our future,” said 59-year-old economist Alidzhon Khakimov as he cast his ballot in Dushanbe. “They are building the Roghun hydroelectric plant for us and will bring us to energy independence.”

Even if the Islamic Revival Party gains a firmer foothold on the political scene, it may have to broaden its message if it wants to win wider acceptance among the secular-minded population.

“If the party focuses on religion, its appeal will remain limited, but if it works more on its social and political platform, it could grow,” said independent political analyst Parviz Mullojanov.

In another sign that the current regime is planning for the future, Rakhmon’s 23-year-old son is making his first foray into politics by standing for a seat in the Dushanbe city council. Rustam Emomali, who has frequently been spotted at state events, is viewed by some as a potential presidential successor.

Associated Press writer Olga Tutubalina in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, contributed to this report.

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