Voting in Tajikistan seen as easy victory for strongman

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Dushanbe (Tajikistan) (AFP)

Central Asian Tajikistan goes to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that is expected to make outgoing Emomali Rakhmon the longest-running strongman in the former Soviet space.

Few expect a hiccup for Rakhmon as he approaches three decades in power and seeks to overtake the recently retired Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in regional longevity issues.

Authoritarian Rakhmon faces four other candidates, all seen as symbolic opponents, in his bid for a new seven-year term.

Polling stations opened at 6 a.m. (0100 GMT) and will close at 8 p.m. (3 p.m. GMT), with results due the following morning.

Voters in the capital Dushanbe, interviewed by AFP, overwhelmingly declared their intention to vote for Rakhmon – and struggled to nominate the other candidates.

Student Abdukholik Faizov said that was to be expected and predicted with a smile that “he who always wins will win again”.

” It’s obvious! We are still waiting for free elections, ”Faizov explained.

While contested votes in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, another former Soviet republic, sparked massive upheaval in those countries, similar developments appear unlikely in Tajikistan.

Rakhmon is described by state media as bringing stability to the country following a civil war in the 1990s that pitted government forces against a diverse opposition, including Islamist fighters.

The constitutional changes adopted in 2016 allowed the “founder of peace and national unity, leader of the nation” as Rakhmon is officially called to stand for election an unlimited number of times.

Rights groups have reported an intensification of the crackdown on the opposition, media and civil society since the changes took effect.

Saida Rakhimova, the director of a state kindergarten, said she hoped Rakhmon would continue to rule for a long time to come.

“We believe him, we trust him,” she said.

She said the government should increase the miserable salaries and pensions of educators and caregivers in the poorest of the former Soviet republics.

“Things are so difficult,” she told AFP.

– ‘Campaign tackle’ –

Few would have guessed that the former boss of collective farms, Rakhmon, would stay the course when he was elevated in 1992 to the presidency of the National Assembly – a post equivalent to that of head of state – as fighting between pro-government forces and the united Tajik opposition. rages.

He was elected president in 1994 after the post was reinstated and re-elected in 1999, 2006 and 2013.

None of the votes were approved by Western election observers.

The candidates he faces exist “to give a campaign veneer to what is otherwise a non-event,” said John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Heathershaw cited the example of candidate Abduhalim Ghafforov, who is now challenging Rakhmon for the third time.

“In 2006 he won just over two percent, in 2013 just over one percent, so if he continues on that path he will get very few votes this time around,” Heathershaw joked.

A party that many see as the only real opposition force in the country – the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan – announced it would boycott the vote shortly after the date set for the poll.

“We see that all power structures, all levers (of government) are working for the benefit of one person,” party vice-president Shokirjon Hakimov told AFP.

Hakimov added that politics in the country under Rakhmon’s rule has been defined by “nepotism, regionalism and corruption”.

This time around, some observers expected Rakhmon, 68, to emulate the decision of 80-year-old Nazarbayev to step down from his top post and install a loyalist, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in his place.

In Tajikistan, any future inheritance is likely to be hereditary, analysts say.

Earlier this year, Rakhmon’s son Rustam Emomali was elected speaker of the upper house of parliament in a move that constitutionally places him second to the presidency.

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