On September 10, a coalition of Tajikistani opposition parties called the “Union of Reformist Forces” officially nominated Oinikhol Bobonazarova to oppose incumbent Emomalii Rahmon in the November 6 presidential elections (Tojnews, September 10). The coalition consists of Tajikistan’s two most influential opposition parties: the Socialist Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT), headed by Rahmatillo Zoirov, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), led by Muhiddin Kabiri (Ozodagon, September 19). The nomination of Bobonazarova has caused a stir in Tajikistan because she is the first ever woman nominee for president and is relatively obscure compared to more likely would-be candidates such as Zoirov, Kabiri or Haji Akbar Turjanzoda (Ozodi, September 10).
A human rights lawyer and longtime opposition figure, Bobonazarova has held a variety of positions at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), academia and civil society, including the Soros Foundation (now called the Open Society Foundations) and her current post as the head of the human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) “Perspectiva+” (Ozodagon, September 19). In 1990, she was one of the founding members of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. After Emomalii Rahmon came to power in 1993, she was briefly imprisoned, but was later granted amnesty (Ozodagon, September 19). In 1997, Sayid Abdulloh Nuri, the leader of the United Tajik Opposition and founder of the IRPT, nominated her for the position of vice prosecutor general, but she declined the nomination (according to the terms of the 1997 peace agreement, which ended Tajikistan’s 1992–1997 civil war, the opposition was guaranteed 30 percent of government posts) (Ozodi, September 10).
On September 17, the IRPT officially approved her nomination for president, leaving many local analysts perplexed at the Islamic party’s backing of a secular-liberal woman (BBC Tajiki, September 17). However prominent cleric and politician Haji Akbar Turajanzoda has given his full-throated support to Bobonazarova. Turjanzoda’s endorsement is crucial for legitimizing a secular woman as a viable candidate. In a statement posted on the IRPT’s website, he defended the nomination by noting that 1) in Islam, a female leader is not prohibited from becoming president in a system of government with separation of powers, which limits executive authority; 2) many conservative Muslim societies, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, have had female heads of state; and 3) she has a strong record of advocating for religious freedom. In an interview with an Iranian-based Tajik blogger, Turajanzoda commented that the prospect of nominating himself or Kabiri was raised; however, it appears that they concluded that clearly it was better for the opposition not to nominate a candidate who could be branded as an “Islamist” (https://www.kemyaesaadat.tj/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5484:1&catid=69:1).
Elsewhere, IRPT’s leader, Kabiri, echoed Turjanzoda’s sentiment noting that the regime has consistently blamed “Islamists” for the bloody civil war, which haunts Tajikistan’s recent past, and they do not want to risk polarizing either the opposition or Tajikistani society along Islamic versus Secular lines (Ozodi, September 10; Nahzat, September 17). He also cited Sayid Abdulloh Nuri’s previous vice prosecutor general nomination of Bobonazarova as an endorsement, and, pragmatically, highlighted the high percentage of woman voters in the country (Nahzat, September 20).
Interestingly, while the IRPT has given its full support to Bobonazarova, the secular wings of the coalition and broader opposition appear more reticent. The National Movement of Tajikistan, an unregistered opposition group, expressed dissatisfaction with both the manner and outcome of the coalition’s nomination (Ozodagon, September 14). They criticized Kabiri and the leadership of the IRPT for not properly consulting with delegates from the SDPT and voiced their preference for the nomination of Rakhmatillo Zoirov (Ozodagon, September 14). Local analysts have argued that Bobonazarova is only known amongst liberal elites, and some experts doubt the willingness of men to vote for her (Millat, September 16). Additionally, while the details remain murky, it appears that the more influential Zoirov (himself a former legal adviser to Rahmon, before becoming one of his most outspoken critics) was not able to attend the nomination vote due to illness (BBC Tajiki, September 17). On September 20, the SDPT released a statement saying that the nomination of Bobonazarova was a “violation of equal rights and the principles of democracy” (BBC Tajiki, September 20). Nevertheless, it appears that the Social Democrats have eventually begrudgingly accepted her candidacy and now deny any fissures in the united opposition.
Aside from potential disharmony in the coalition, Bobonazarova faces an uphill battle. In order to be added to the official ballot, she must collect 210,000 signatures by October 7 (Asia Plus, September 2). Commentators have noted that even under free and fair conditions this is a difficult feat, and members of the coalition have already complained of government obstruction (BBC Tajiki, September 20).
While observers are generally cynical about the impact of Tajikistan’s presidential elections, several factors could make this one more interesting. First, the main opposition parties boycotted both the 1999 and the 2006 elections (due to a controversial 2003 constitutional amendment, the president is elected to seven-year terms). However, it appears that this time the opposition parties are not only participating, but are united behind one candidate. Second, in the past, the chaos that ensued after the fall of the Soviet Union and ultimately led to Tajikistan’s civil war has given President Rahmon a degree of impunity as Tajikistanis have generally been willing to sacrifice freedom for stability. However, in recent years, rampant corruption, a stagnant economy, and a crackdown on religious freedoms have increased while at the same time the memory of the chaos of the 1990s has receded as the population demographically becomes younger. Additionally, since 2006, events such as the 2009 election demonstrations in Iran, the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan, and the Arab Spring have arguably changed the atmosphere of elections in authoritarian regimes.
As a woman and a human rights activist with long ties to international organizations and NGOs, the coalition may have calculated that even if Bobonazarova is not the best candidate to win, she is well cast to play the victim in the likely scenario of a fraudulent election. In the end, her nomination may have less to do with winning the election itself and more to do with framing the narrative of its aftermath.