While the outcome of Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections on February 28 were largely predictable, the opposition’s efforts to challenge its results are rather unusual. Within days of the vote, the country’s major opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) announced that it would contest the election results, indirectly blaming the ruling regime for falsification. Led by its moderate leader, Muhhidin Kabiri, the IRP claims that it earned 30 percent support, while official results show that the party gained only 7 percent. The IRP will address the issue in the courts, threatening the regime with protests should its legal claims be dismissed (www.asia-plus.tj, March 3). Kabiri also mentioned that his party will stage demonstrations to contest the results.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the elections is the IRP’s decision to exit the Social Council of Tajikistan, created in 1996 as part of the effort to end the 1992-1997 civil war. Although the IRP’s action does not suggest that the party is returning to civil war rhetoric, its stance shows that its leaders are convinced that they have substantial support among the population. The peace accord reached in 1997 states that the IRP is allocated a 30 percent quota in parliament. Yet, since then, the IRP has never received or claimed to have received that share of the seats.
For over a decade after the war ended, the Tajik President, Emomali Rakhmon, had been able to sustain genuine popularity among the population by convincing them that he was the sole guarantor of peace and stability in the country and any opposition to his regime would inevitably result in renewed bloodshed. This allowed the president to gain real support in elections and remove any competitors from the government or parliament. To show personal loyalty to the president, some government officials adopted the new habit of publicly addressing Rakhmon as “Your Excellency,” and “Your Majesty.”
Since the early 2000’s, the president has had a fairly smooth ride in the elections. In the 1999 presidential election, Rakhmon gained 97 percent support, only to earn slightly more modest results in the 2006 vote. The incumbent leader amended the constitution to serve several seven-year terms as president, while his son Rustami is mooted as his potential successor. During the recent elections, Rakhmon’s National Democratic Party (NDP) gained most votes and five other parties were declared to have met the required 5 percent threshold (www.politcom.ru, March 3). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deemed that the elections witnessed numerous irregularities.
With nearly 40 percent of the local population lacking any memories of war, and indifferent to the president’s warnings of its possible renewal, Rakhmon has been losing supporters among ordinary Tajiks. Despite relying on a loyal parliament and government, Rakhmon is faced with the challenge of sustaining his narrative of peace and stability among younger generations.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan’s youth are jobless and lack education. Adhering to moderate Islamic values, the IRP’s charismatic leaders offer the young population an option to follow a movement that has an identifiable ideological structure. The IRP is also known for gaining strong support among Tajik labor migrants, residing mainly in Russia (www.fergana.ru, February 26).
Moderate opposition leaders like Kabiri, who did not participate in the war, represent Rakhmon’s greatest challenge today. Although the IRP leaders are facing substantial challenges from the regime following their official protest, their actions suggest the appearance of a new trend in the country. It seems unlikely that Kabiri would risk his political reputation and personal security for merely populist reasons. Even if he fails to convince the regime to revise the election results, he will show himself to be a determined politician ahead of the 2013 presidential election. Importantly, Kabiri is a politician well-known outside Tajikistan who continues to inspire the IRP’s followers despite the party being represented by only one or two members in the parliament throughout the post-war period.
Kabiri once told Jamestown that he is often the only one to vote against Rakhmon’s legislation in the parliament. “Fellow MP’s ask me why I even bother to vote against the president’s bills, and I tell them ‘I want to make sure the ‘no’ button actually works,’” he told Jamestown. He also said that he is closely monitored by the regime and sometimes finds himself in the position of serving the role of “loyal opposition.” Following the recent elections, the leader’s role in Tajikistan’s political life might also change. For that to happen, Kabiri needs stronger international support and recognition.