Referendum’s outcome may alienate moderate Tajiks and escalate “radicalisation” with fears of violence on the rise.
Vote counting is under way in Tajikistan after a presidential election that is expected to make incumbent Emomali Rahmon the longest-serving ruler in the former Soviet region.
Polling stations opened at 6am local time (01:00 GMT) on Sunday and closed at 8pm (15:00 GMT), with results expected the following morning.
The Central Electoral Commission said the vote had passed the turnout threshold required for validation, with more than 70 percent of the nearly five million strong electorate casting votes.
Few are anticipating any hiccups for Rahmon as he closes in on three decades in power and looks to overtake Kazakhstan’s recently retired Nursultan Nazarbayev in the regional longevity stakes.
Rahmon, 68, has run the Persian-speaking nation of 9.5 million people since 1992, a period including a civil war. He has gradually strengthened his grip and a 2016 constitutional reform removed a limit on the number of terms he could serve.
He faces four other candidates, all of whom are viewed as token opponents, in his bid for a fresh seven-year term. All challengers are members of the docile lower house of parliament and have avoided criticising Rakhmon, whose official title is “Founder of Peace and National Unity – Leader of the Nation.”
Though they say they are in the race to win, their campaign staff privately admit they have little chance of garnering any significant vote count.
Voters in the capital Dushanbe interviewed by the AFP news agency overwhelmingly stated their intention to cast their ballot for Rahmon – and struggled to name the other candidates.
Student Abdukholik Faizov said that this was to be expected and predicted with a smile that “the one who always wins will win again.”
“It is obvious! We are still waiting for free elections,” Faizov explained.
While disputed votes in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and fellow former Soviet republic Belarus have triggered massive upheavals in those countries, similar developments appear unlikely in Tajikistan.
Rahmon is portrayed by state media as bringing stability to the country following a civil war during the 1990s that pitted government forces against a diverse opposition, including hardline Muslim fighters.
— S Ibrahimi صابر ابراهيمي (@saberibrahimi) October 11, 2020
The constitutional changes passed four years ago allowed Rahmon to run for office an unlimited number of times. Rights groups have flagged an intensifying crackdown on opposition, media and civil society since the changes took effect.
Few would have guessed that former collective farm boss Rahmon would stay the course when he was elevated in 1992 to the chairmanship of the national assembly – a position equivalent to head of state.
He was then elected president in 1994 after the position was re-established, and re-elected in 1999, 2006 and 2013.
None of the votes was endorsed by Western electoral observers.
The candidates he faces exist “to give a veneer of campaign to what is otherwise a non-event,” said John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
Heathershaw cited the example of candidate Abduhalim Ghafforov, now challenging Rahmon for a third time.
A party that many view as the only real opposition force in the country – the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan – announced that it would boycott the vote not long after a date for the ballot was set.
“We see that all power structures, all levers [of government] work for the benefit of one person,” the party’s deputy chairman Shokirjon Hakimov told AFP.
Hakimov added that politics in the country under Rahmon’s rule has been defined by “nepotism, regionalism and corruption”.
In Tajikistan, any future succession is likely to be hereditary, analysts believe.
Earlier this year, Rahmon’s son Rustam Emomali was elected chairman of parliament’s upper house in a move that positions him as constitutionally second-in-line to the presidency.