By Kyle Parker and Knox Thames
On November 6, 2006, Tajikistan held its fourth presidential election, in which incumbent President Emomali Rahmonov easily won over four other competitors. The conduct of the campaign and the Election Day itself provided the international community with an opportunity to gauge Tajikistan’s commitment to democratization – the result was a mixed picture that displayed fundamental problems that must be addressed before Tajikistan can meet OSCE standards of free and fair elections.
The final results released by the Central Commission for Election and Referenda (CCER) of Tajikistan showed that President Rahmonov defeated four other candidates with 79 percent of the vote, based on approximately 3 million ballots representing 91 percent of the electorate. The nearest competitor garnered just over five percent. The OSCE’s Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported in its preliminary findings that the elections “did not fully test democratic electoral practices… due to a lack of genuine choice and meaningful pluralism,” and concluded that “the election process also revealed substantial shortcomings.”
Tajikistan in Context
Tajikistan is located at the heart of the ancient Silk Road traversing the Eurasian landmass, bordering Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With about seven million people, Tajikistan has a young, growing population that is largely Sunni Muslim and speaks Tajik, a language closely related to Farsi. Tajikistan has one of the lowest GDP’s of the former Soviet republics; up to one million Tajik citizens are migrant workers abroad, mostly in the Russian Federation.
Landlocked and home to the tallest mountains in the post-Soviet space, Tajikistan possesses abundant fresh water resources from glacial runoff. However, only six percent of Tajikistan is arable. Tajikistan also hosts one of the largest and most polluting aluminum smelters in the world. Additionally, since the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001, the cross-border drug trade has dramatically increased, fueling corruption, drug addiction, and HIV/AIDS among the local population.
Following the dissolution of the USSR, Tajikistan was the only former Soviet republic to experience a protracted civil war that claimed the lives of at least 40,000 people and displaced nearly a million. Despite extreme poverty, the country has made notable gains since the peace agreement signed almost 10 years ago that ended the civil war. The accord created a power-sharing agreement among the warring parties, including the only legal Islamic party in post-Soviet Central Asia.
President Rahmonov was first elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1999. The Constitution of Tajikistan sets a presidential term of office at seven years. In 2003, a referendum amended the constitution to limit the number of consecutive terms an individual could be elected president to two, but allowed him to run again. As a result, President Rahmonov may seek another term in 2013, potentially serving until 2020.
As elsewhere in Central Asia, Tajikistan’s political system features top-down rule by the president, whose control of the state apparatus and state-run media greatly enhance his privileged position in any election. Pre-election decrees by the CCER did address some inequities in the election system, and the government provided opposition parties free air time on state television. However, the ability of independent media outlets to operate freely was restricted. And while multiple candidates did participate, the major opposition leaders experienced significant harassment from authorities and did not or could not run.
For instance, Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the former head of the Democratic Party, was sentenced to 23 years in prison in October 2005 under questionable circumstances. This year, authorities repeatedly threatened criminal penalties against the Chairman of the Socialist Democratic Party, Rahmatullo Zoyirov, for statements made regarding the number of alleged political prisoners in Tajikistan. Before his death in August, charges of slander were brought against the late Said Abdullo Nuri, Chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party, who was arguably the only opposition presidential candidate with a national following. Of these three parties, only the anti-Iskandarov “Vatan” faction of the Democratic Party entered a candidate. Their bid was unsuccessful, as they could not obtain the necessary petition signatures in time to qualify for ballot inclusion.
The CCER registered five candidates out of six nominees who submitted signatures for the election: Olimjon Boboev (Party of Economic Reform of Tajikistan); Abdukhalim Gaffarov (Socialist Party); Amir Karakulov (Agrarian Party); Emomali Rahmonov (Peoples’ Democratic Party of Tajikistan); and Ismoil Talbakov (Communist Party of Tajikistan).
To run, candidates had to collect signatures representing five percent of registered voters, or approximately 160,000 names. Individuals could not sign more than one petition, and yet remarkably, the six applicants reportedly collected over 1.5 million signatures, equaling roughly half of the electorate in just 20 days. Considering that the pro-government Agrarian and the Economic Reform Parties were both established this year, their ability to set up a network to collect the required signatures was remarkable and implausible. Although roughly one of every two voters signed a petition (based on the claims of the parties), Commission staff did not meet any individual voter who had signed a petition nor did staff hear of any other OSCE observer that met a voter who also signed a petition.
Each candidate had up to 30 minutes of free air time on state television and radio. Nevertheless, the OSCE EOM described the campaign period as “largely invisible,” with party platforms that were “similar,” and concluded that “none of the four candidates running against the incumbent offered a credible political alternative.” Furthermore, there was “little media coverage of the election campaign and a high media profile of the incumbent, raising doubts whether voters received sufficient information to make an informed choice.”
Violations on Election Day
The November 6 election was the first presidential election in Tajikistan observed by the OSCE, as minimum conditions for democratic elections were not in place for previous presidential contests. The EOM deployed 12 experts and 13 long-term observers to the capital city of Dushanbe and five other cities. The Mission was headed by Mr. Onno van der Wind of the Netherlands. Mr. Kimmo Kiljunen, a parliamentarian from Finland, led the observation delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which was integrated into the EOM.
On Election Day, the EOM deployed 123 short-term observers representing 31 OSCE participating States. OSCE observers visited approximately 500 of 3,042 polling stations throughout Tajikistan and observed the closing procedures and tabulations in 47 District Election Commissions.
Helsinki Commission staff members were accredited as OSCE observers and visited 15 polling stations in the Dushanbe area, ranging from large urban stations to smaller semi-suburban stations and two military precincts. They witnessed the opening and closing of a polling station, as well as tabulation at the District Electoral Commission level. Commission staff witnessed some type of violation in approximately three quarters of the polling stations visited. The most common problem was the appearance of identical signatures on the voter registry, possibly indicating proxy voting. However, proxy voting was only witnessed in one station. Family voting was widespread. In the vast majority of precincts, ballot boxes were not adequately sealed, but there was no visible evidence of tampering. There were no observed instances of voters being denied the opportunity to cast a ballot, nor were any such complaints raised with Commission staff.
Commission staff did encounter teams of observers accredited by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China. None of these teams appeared to operate under any kind of election observation methodology, in clear contrast to OSCE observers. As in past elections, the CIS observers drew starkly different conclusions about the electoral conditions than the conclusions of the OSCE EOM.
Of the irregularities observed throughout the day, none appeared to be deliberate attempts to skew the final tally in favor of, or against any particular candidate. The infractions appeared to stem from a lack of proper training, old Soviet habits, and/or a general lackadaisical attitude to what was largely seen as an exercise with a foregone conclusion.
Still, the vote count monitored by Commission staff at polling station 10 in Dushanbe’s Second District raised questions about the motives of the precinct workers, who appeared determined not to allow a credible observation. Initially, Commission staff were not permitted to enter the station. Once inside, they were not allowed to come within 15 feet of the table where election officials were counting the ballots. In addition, election officials stood in such a way as to block observers from having any view of the tabulations. Precinct staff did not follow closing procedures – counting the blank ballots last rather than first; results were not entered into the protocol as they were established, but rather at the end of the entire count. Staff questions about these concerns directed to the Precinct Election Commission head were unsatisfactorily answered.
The EOM preliminary report echoed these findings. Of the polling stations visited by OSCE observers, proxy voting was cited in 19 percent of the stations and identical signatures were observed in 49 percent of the stations. The report cited incidents of security officials interfering in the work of the observers. In addition, the report found that “counting procedures necessary to ensure integrity and transparency of the process were generally not followed.”
The report did note some areas of progress, such as the peaceful nature of the voting; CCER training for electoral commissions; provision of free air time for candidates; voter education efforts; ballots in multiple languages; and the availability of polling stations abroad.
However, the EOM report concluded that overall the election “did not fully test democratic electoral practices” because of a “lack of genuine choice and meaningful pluralism.” The findings went on to state that “the election was characterized by a marked absence of real competition. Parties that determined themselves as political opposition to the incumbent chose not to contest the election. Thus, voters were presented with a choice that was only nominal.” Other issues of concern were: significant shortcomings in the election legislation; lack of transparency by the CCER; a government-controlled media environment; and an unusually high signature threshold for candidate participation.
The outcome of Tajikistan’s presidential contest was never in doubt – the only question was whether President Rahmonov’s final tally would be in the 80th percentile (as in Kyrgyzstan last July) or the 90th percentile (typical for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and recently equaled in Kazakhstan). By that standard, the 79 percent that Rahmonov received could be considered modest for Central Asia.
Nevertheless, the international community was able to assess Tajikistan’s commitment to democratization through its conduct before and during the election. Overall, the campaign and election presented a mixed, but generally frustrating, picture – while the electoral code reform, the lack of Election Day violence, and the participation of multiple candidates was positive, the prevalence of irregularities and the intimidation or arrest of major opposition leaders call into question President Rahmonov’s commitment to democratic reform. Although there was little question he would win a fair contest, the deck was carefully stacked anyway.
Problems with Tajikistan’s electoral conduct are not new, as the OSCE observed their 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections and found significant violations in both. The conclusions of the 2000 observation mission stated that Tajikistan must do more to “meet the minimum democratic standards for equal, fair, free, secret, transparent and accountable elections.” Despite OSCE engagement in the pre-election period last year, the 2005 parliamentary elections remained problematic, with the OSCE mission stating they “failed to meet many key OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” Against that background, the 2006 presidential election was disappointing for not having achieved more and deeper systemic reforms.
President Rahmonov, now safely reelected, has consolidated his position. The next real test of his commitment to electoral reform will be the 2010 parliamentary election, specifically, whether independent opposition parties can operate and organize freely. Many observers believe that the electorate’s vivid memory of the civil war has created an appreciation for the stability he represents, despite the country’s democratic shortcomings. However, 60 percent of the population is reportedly under 35 years old and if serious democratic reforms are not entrenched, and the 2010 parliamentary election again falls short of international standards, the political gains achieved since the end of the war may be jeopardized.
As Rakhmonov begins a new seven-year term of office, it is critical that reform efforts move forward. A good sense of his government’s direction could come early in his new administration, if problematic draft NGO or religion laws, are reintroduced, since previous versions fell short of OSCE commitments. In addition, continued governmental efforts to close or harass independent media outlets will also indicate whether old policies will hold sway during the new term of office.
The United States should continue to find ways to help this impoverished nation develop economically and democratically, lending assistance when appropriate, while continuing to hold Tajikistani authorities to the OSCE commitments they freely undertook. The United States would do well to continue to actively encourage those laboring for a stable and open society in this country that has the potential to be a key partner in battling regional threats to U.S. interests. In addition, the growth of democracy and respect for human rights would enable Washington and Dushanbe to deepen their engagement, while cementing the stability and progress achieved in Tajikistan.