Articles, Protests

After a Flawed Election: What Next for Tajikistan?

On October 11, a masked Emomali Rahmon cast his ballot in the sixth presidential election in the country’s 29-year history. With no surprise to anyone, the 68-year-old Rahmon, who has won all previous elections since 1994, claimed victory with just under 91 per cent of the vote. His four opponents, none of whom are part of the independent opposition, led lackluster campaigns that failed to generate much attention. 

Despite the independent media reporting fraud, multiple election observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) quickly concluded that the vote met “democratic standards.” With his victory secure, the longest-serving ruler in Central Asia could stay in office for at least seven more years.

Ahead of the elections, security was enhanced. A week earlier, protests in response to the parliamentary election results in Kyrgyzstan had sparked nationwide protests, unrest and a scramble for power. But Tajikistan was a more predictable affair. 

This is the second election in Tajikistan in 2020. In March, the ruling People’s Democratic Party secured 47 seats in the 63 seat lower assembly of parliament. Like last week’s vote, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it took place in a “tightly controlled environment.” 

Rahmon has slowly consolidated his power, using elections to signal the legitimacy of his regime. Having been appointed head of the Supreme Council, and head of state in November 1992, at the height of the civil war, he first stood for election in 1994, squaring off against favored candidate for the northern elite Abdumalik Abdullojonov. Rahmon won with 58% of the vote.

The next election in 1999 saw Rahmon face Davlat Usmon of the civil war-era opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), which had just been legalized. With the opposition calling for a boycott of the elections, which they reversed just hours before the vote, Rahmon won 97% of the vote. Further elections in 2006 and 2013 fit the current pattern, with nominally independent candidates participating in the elections for the sake of show. Rahmon has manipulated the constitution to allow him to stay in power, becoming Leader of the Nation in 2015, with a plebiscite abolishing term limits for him in 2016.

In doing so, he has been backed by “zombie election monitors” from regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the CIS, and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Monitors from the OSCE, have never declared a Tajik election free and fair. But their counterparts from Russian and Chinese-backed organizations have consistently noted how they were carried out in an orderly manner, within the framework of the law and meeting ill-defined “democratic standards.”

Last week’s presidential election was the first in Tajikistan since the Islamic Renaissance Party was banned in 2015. In the previous presidential election they nominated human rights activist Oinhol Bobonazarova, in a signal of their desire to rebrand their image as a democratic and human rights-focused party. But she couldn’t collect the 210,000 signatures required by law to stand for president. Things only became worse for the IRPT.

Years of government pressure, outlined in Protocol No. 32-20, an order from Rahmon in 2011 to marginalize and dismantle the party, culminated in the classification of the party as a terrorist organization by the Supreme Court in 2015 after an alleged coup attempt. The only remaining independent opposition party, the Social Democrats, boycotted Sunday’s vote.

 Two other candidates did try to register for the election. Faromuz Irgashev, a 30-year-old lawyer based in Khorog, who called for democratic reforms, was unable to get sufficient support. He did not end up voting because he didn’t “believe in the transparency of this political campaign.” And parliamentary deputy from the Democratic Party, Saidjafar Usmonzoda, who had been critical of the government’s response to Covid-19, was accused of falsifying signatures and blocked from standing. 

Veteran leader Rahmon faces two major challenges as he starts his fifth term as president. Although the country has not ordered a strict lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is nonetheless teetering on the brink of economic disaster. Remittances sent back from Russia, which made up a third of the economy in 2019, have plummeted by 38 percent according to Russian Central Bank figures. According to the World Bank’s Listening to Tajikistan survey 80% of remittances are spent on basic necessities. In May, 55 percent of households scaled back spending on basic goods such as food according to the World Bank. As prices increase in the winter months, food security will become a real issue.

Rahmon also has to contend with transition. His chosen successor appears to be his 32-year-old son, Rustam. He has risen through the ranks of government and in April was appointed chairman of the upper house of parliament and second in line to the presidency. But Rustam is not the only member of Rahmon’s large extended family who has accrued economic and political power. His brother in law Hasan Asadullozoda, controls the country’s largest airline and one of its biggest banks. Rahmon’s daughter Ozoda is his chief of staff and her husband uses his position at the National Bank to control the banking sector. The Sohibovs, with two sons married to two of Rahmon’s seven daughters, control key sectors of the economy ranging from tourism to medicine through holding company Faroz. The company’s reported dissolution in September 2019 appears to have been an effort to deflect negative attention from the company, which is still very much operating.

Rahmon has been masterful at managing potential conflicts within the family, who have made billions of dollars from their positions. But if he should suddenly become incapacitated and as he transitions power to his son, with such high stakes, the potential for conflict within the elite will rise. 

Whoever succeeds Rahmon will not have as much power or authority to stifle conflicts before they spill over into the public realm. As the toasts to seven more years of Rahmon abate, he will have a fair amount to contend with in the coming months.

Oleg Antonov is a Visiting Researcher at at the Department of Global Political Studies and a member of the research group Russia and the Caucasus Regional Research (RUCARR) at Malmö University. Edward Lemon is President of the Oxus Society and Research Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, Washington DC.