In few days, on March 1, 2020, Tajikistan will hold elections to the republic’s legislative body. The fifth parliamentary elections in the post-war period of Tajik history will be held with a minimum political intrigue and with only one official opposition party participating. The ruling party feels more confident than ever. The systemic and non-systemic Tajik opposition is trying to influence the process but does not acquire the necessary resources.
The situation prior to the parliamentary elections in Tajikistan can be generally regarded as calm and predictable. As opposed to the past elections, the authorities this time do not have such influential political opponents like the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which is designated terrorist in the country.
The Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT) is the only party to openly criticize the current course. The remaining participants of the race, including the Communist Party of Tajikistan that positions itself as opposition, maintain restrained rhetoric regarding the government’s policy.
At the debate in early February this year, held by the Tajik service of Radio Liberty “Radio Ozodi”, representatives of all seven political parties emphasized the need for the country’s social and economic development, as the main message of their program,
No party could afford to voice any political slogans and call into question the president’s policies. The only exception was the SDPT, whose leader Rakhmatillo Zoyirov said that he did not believe in the transparency of the upcoming elections and his participation is only “for the sake of presenting his program” and “strengthening the will of voters”. Colleagues from other parties did not share his views.
On February 20, 2020, political parties began their appearances on state television as part of the election campaign. To this end, each party is given 40 minutes of free airtime, whereas individual candidates are given 20 minutes. Candidates also have the social networks at their disposal that are actively used by many, including migrants – the most able-bodied and active fragment of the population. However, the representation of parties is not at its best. Only the SDPT representatives post photos of their campaign work. They also claim that they have distributed about 12 thousand flyers and held about 50 meetings. Other parties are almost inactive in familiarizing voters with their programs, though the Central Election Commission argues that the campaign work of parties and individual candidates are proceeding properly.
Emomali Rahmon, during his last address to parliament, demanded that the relevant structures would not interfere in the election process but instead perform the tasks assigned. However, the government’s preparation for the elections has been observed long before their announcement.
In June last year, the republic’s parliament supported the amendments proposed by the government to the law “On the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda of the Republic of Tajikistan”. According to that, members of political parties cannot be members of the country’s Central Election Commission. Before that, all parties could have had a representative at the CEC who could oversee the vote-counting process. Critics of the bill at the time of the amendment stated that the withdrawal of political parties’ members from the election commission undermines the transparency and impartiality of its work. Besides, it will allow government representatives to manipulate the process in favor of the ruling party. It later turned out that three of the seven CEC members for elections and referenda are members of the ruling PDPT. The party claims they had long ago handed over their party tickets. Nevertheless, the dependence of the CEC members on the executive branch, which, among other things, receive wages from the state, is a significant lever of influence on the election process.
In addition to certain mechanisms of influence, the authorities’ PR-moves on the eve of the elections were also observed. For example, the law “On Amnesty” in honor of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of Tajikistan in November 2019. Under this law, about 20 thousand people fell under the amnesty, which did nothing but positively affect the image of the president and his party. This also includes the launch of two units of the Rogun Hydroelectric Power Station involving the president in 2018 and 2019. The project is not new – it has been used by state propaganda for several years as the implementation of a national idea.
Moreover, the ruling PDPT mostly nominates former government officials that are more recognizable in their constituencies as their candidates.
The party-list includes the chairman of the Security Council, the former minister of labor and social development, the former minister of justice, the former chairman for women and family affairs, the deputy chairman of the Khatlon region and other officials. Interestingly, their dismissal in presidential decrees is reasoned by “their appointment to another post”. The latter is not in favor of a statement by the head of state on holding transparent and democratic elections.
The absence of a real struggle between competing parties is also confirmed by their campaign costs. The leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Saidjafar Usmonzoda, in an interview, said that their party will spend 75 thousand somonis (about 8 thousand US dollars) on elections. Representatives of other parties plan to spend from 100 to 150 thousand somonis (10-15 thousand US dollars). The legislation of Tajikistan, in turn, provides a maximum threshold for the expenditure of funds for the election campaign for 1 million 740 somonis (about 180 thousand US dollars).
However, in a republic with real competition and a population of 9 million people, the amounts indicated by the parties would hardly cover a tenth of the PR costs.
Nevertheless, party leaders are optimistic and intend to occupy at least five seats in parliament to create a faction along with the ruling party.
For all these years, only the Tajik Agrarian Party managed to create a faction, which won five seats in the parliamentary elections in 2015. At the same time, the two main opposition parties lost their seats, the Islamic Renaissance Party, now banned in Tajikistan, and the Communist Party of Tajikistan, which until then had two representatives in the legislature. The leader of the Communists, Shodi Shabdolov, then called the election a “farce” but considered it pointless to boycott and appeal their results. By the way, after his resignation, the Communist Party of Tajikistan significantly softened its position on the government. This happened even against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the Islamic Revival Party a terrorist and the arrests of its prominent figures.
In the upcoming elections, the opposition National Alliance of Tajikistan, which includes the IRPT and the opposition group 24, made separate statements in support of the SDPT candidates and called on their supporters to vote for this party. The leadership of the SDPT also issued an official statement that it has no ties with these organizations and thereby it was their personal opinion.
Thus, the non-systemic Tajik opposition, whose activity is limited by social media in the elections, has taken the side of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan. However, its support is unlikely to be effective in the absolute dominance of the party in power.
However, observers invited by Dushanbe to the March 1 elections seem to not doubt the situation.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in its report published on January 16, noted that it would not advise its observers to participate in the parliamentary elections in Tajikistan, but would resort to this for the sake of civil society interest and the authorities’ willingness to maintain dialogue on election issues.
The document notes the complete lack of progress in bringing the legal framework of elections in line with OSCE commitments and international standards for holding democratic elections. In particular, it identifies the absence of media and the possibility of opposition. By the way, this organization has never recognized the elections in Tajikistan as free and democratic. They were recognized as such by representatives of the CIS executive committee, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the SCO, who will also participate in the March 1 elections. According to the official data, there would 500 international observers in total observing the elections.
Instead of conclusions
The fifth parliamentary election did not contribute to the emergence of a constructive counter-elite in parliament but instead led to the expulsion of existing opponents of the government from the political field. An informal ban on criticism and, consequently, on political competition has reduced the mass interest not only in political participation but also in observation of the process. As a result, the parties represented in Tajikistan’s political field turned out to be uninteresting to the masses.
The parties themselves, over the past period, nearly did not take the essential steps to gain interest in their activities. Neither socio-political issues, nor questions of domestic and foreign policy, nor the personnel policy of the country was put into doubt by them. That is how they earned a reputation of a “pocket opposition”. The only exception is the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, but the lack of resources and the required mass support limits its influence. Besides, its presence is more like an indicator of political pluralism, which is in high interest of the government.
The authorities, having no opponents within the country, openly use the administrative resource. All representatives of districts and cities that organize elections are not elected but are appointed by the executive branch to their posts. Therefore, they remain completely dependent on it.
Under these circumstances, the election outcome becomes predictable not only within the country but also outside of it. Guessing what other parties except the ruling one will get into parliament could make an intrigue. However, in this case, the situation won’t change much even if all parties get seats in parliament.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.