With presidential elections in Tajikistan planned for this fall, the current president and leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Emomali Rahmonov, remains the only candidate. The opposition Islamic Renaissance Party will likely put forward its own candidate, although a Rahmonov victory is easily predictable. He has held the presidency since November 1992.
Other political parties, including the once-powerful communists, have neither the necessary social nor financial support to mount an adequate election campaign. These rather flaccid political dynamics ahead of the presidential election are the result of the government’s effective suppression of competing political forces and the heavy reliance on informal connections within the PDP.
Rahmonov’s victory is predictable for several reasons. First, Rahmonov enjoys absolute support in the government and parliament, which are populated mainly by PDP members. Second, among the masses he is known as a leader who brought peace and stability after the civil conflict in the 1990s. Third, the PDP has strong ties with the largest local and foreign businesses in the country, and no other political party can realistically rely on the private sector’s support.
The elections, hence, are only a routine exercise to preserve the legitimacy of the current regime. Most of the former warlord or opposition leaders who could challenge Rahmonov’s presidency were eliminated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While the extermination of violent competitors brought a sense of security in the country against the possibility of a renewed bloodshed, it also made the government a more corrupt structure that is interested in holding on to power by informally controlling the economy and averting market reforms.
The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) is built on a religious-ideological basis that is reflected in its activities and internal hierarchy. For example, the party’s members pay their annual fees according to zakat, a tax fee based upon Islamic law. Recently, the party called on the government to take a firm position against the Israeli offensive in Lebanon. Although the party has liberal and conservative wings, the more liberal leaders of the party, most of them active in state politics, try to avoid an intra-party split. However, the ruling elite often prefers to cooperate with the party’s conservative members in order to weaken its internal cohesion.
Wednesday, August 9, the IRP’s main leader, Abdullo Said Nuri, died after a long illness. Nuri had been an active propagator of political Islamic ideas since 1970s, forming an underground Islamic youth organization in 1975. During the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-97), Nuri led the United Tajik Opposition bloc comprised of several opposition parties. He took an active part in the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1997. With Nuri’s death, only Muhiddin Kabiri, the IRP’s deputy chair, represents the party in parliament.
Unlike IRP, the PDP’s internal cohesion is often solidified by distributing economic opportunities among its members. According to Tajik opposition members, the president’s family controls the bulk of the country’s major businesses: “I can assert that the private possessions of the ‘family’ are equal to the state budget of the country, roughly $500 million,” one Tajik opposition leader told Jamestown.
Official members of the PDP are therefore economically dependent on their leaders and are interested in Rahmonov’s victory. Likewise, owners of businesses who are closely connected to the ruling regime are able to show their support towards the PDP and Rahmonov through donating to the party and presidential campaign. At the same time, the country’s business elite is cautious about being associated with the political opposition, especially IRP (Asia-Plus, August 5).
Rahmonov’s prospective victory will not stand out from other Central Asian leaders’ efforts to be reelected with landslide support. In politically more open Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, last year’s presidential elections were won with 90% and 96% of votes cast, respectively. In the 1999 presidential elections Rahmonov won 97% of the votes, even though the IRP’s membership is only one-fifth of the PDP’s, 22,000 members against 100,000, respectively.
With corruption permeating the public and private sectors, Rahmonov risks leading the country into greater poverty and desperation at the expense of strengthening his own power. Tajikistan today is the poorest post-Soviet state, with GDP constituting $1.9 billion in 2005 (CIA World Factbook). According to Muzaffar Olimov, director on the Tajik NGO “Sharq,” about 600,000 citizens, out of a population of seven million, work in Russia as seasonal labor. According to various estimates, 15-40% of the population depends on the drug economy for income (Charogi Ruz, no. 110, 2005).
There are some signs of progress in Tajikistan’s economy, as new services are being introduced and the government is cooperating with numerous international donors and investors. According to the assessment of one World Bank representative in Washington, DC, experts from Tajikistan’s hydropower sector “display a great eagerness to work on the construction of new hydropower plants and learn fast from…mistakes.”
However, murkier feedback comes from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which deals with the local cotton industry as a part of its mission in Tajikistan. Local representatives of at least one international organization complain that corruption at all levels of the public sector blocks ADB’s and other international donor’s efforts in the country. The government pockets most international credits and investments, while an appearance of democracy is created through elections.