Tajikistan votes: But only one real option

Voters say one thing when the camera is running and another when it’s off, as long-term leader set to hold onto power

The electoral commission says voter turnout was overwhelming. That’s remarkable considering that there is only one real candidate, and it happens to be the president they’ve had since 1992.

His only possible real opponent was Oinihol Bobonazarova, a human rights lawyer and activists. She had partnered up with a coalition led by the moderate Islamic Revival party. She could have made this race more interesting, but couldn’t get the number of electorate signatures required to stand for elections. Her party says it’s because their supporters were harassed and intimidated by local authorities. It’s a claim backed by Human Rights Watch, who weeks ago called for the Tajik government to end its crackdown on the political opposition.

Instead, President Imomali Rakhmon was running against five candidates nobody had really heard of – said to be his supporters.

International election monitors say Tajikistan has never had an election that’s met democratic standards. That’s despite, or perhaps because of, Rakhmon winning elections in 1994, 1999 and 2006. The previous one came after changing the constitution so his time in office was extended to 7 years and he could run for another 2 terms. That would theoretically make this his last.

On camera, voters tell us the president is doing his best, despite half the country living below the poverty line.

Off camera, it’s a different story. People speak under their breaths about how they only have electricity for just a few hours a day, how there is no heating in the harsh winters. They speak in hushed tones about the poor education system. Then they catch themselves and round off their complaints with talk of how the president will change it all.

Analysts are more forthcoming. They say that the vote is just an exercicse, a show for the international community that Tajikistan is on it’s way to democracy.But none of the analysts and country-watchers we spoke to could tell us how it’s going to happen, or who’ll give Rakhamon a run for his money.

Although Tajikistan is one of the smallest countries in Central Asia, and the poorest of all the 15 former Soviet states, there is much international interest here. Russia, of course, is watching closely. It has a military base in Tajikistan, and is host to large numbers of Tajik migrant workers, whose remittances make up 40% of the country’s GDP.

Tajikistan also has close relations with Iran and President Rouhani is expected to visit in the coming days to inaugurate a hydroelectric dam it largely funded.

China, too, has strong economic ties, extending credit and investing in infrastructure in the country. Beijing is also pouring money into oil and gas exploration.

The US, however, fears that another term of Rakhamon would be bad news for neighbouring Afghanistan with Nato troops due to pull out. Western nations believe that another term of Rakhamon would mean more corruption, human and drug trafficking, deteriorating human rights and continued poverty.

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