Rahmon's critic out of race, but alive
By Fozil Mashrab
The Central Election Commission of Tajikistan announced on October 11 that a total of six candidates have registered for the presidential elections scheduled for November 6. According to the Tajik authorities, only those six, who include President Emomali Rahmon, have been able to collect the required 210,000 signatures of supporters to be able to stand.
The opposition candidate from the Union of Progressive Forces, Oinihol Bobonazarova, a veteran human rights activist with links to Western non-governmental organizations, failed to register herself as her team was not able to collect enough signatures in time.
The day before the October 11 deadline, Bobonazarova said her team had been able to collect only 201,000 signatures, or 9,000
short of the required threshold. She claimed the authorities used state machinery, police intimidation and other administrative tools to prevent her supporters from collecting the signatures as her activists were harassed anywhere they went "from many sides, starting with state-run television and extending to regional governors, neighborhood committee heads, and even teachers, who did not want to see her run".
Potential supporters who were willing to offer their signatures in private were intimidated by the authorities not to do so.
In a further blow, other potential supporters of the opposition forces - migrant workers in Russia and other countries - have been disqualified from participating in the signature collecting procedure, though they can still vote in the elections.
Weeks earlier, when Bobonazarova announced of her intention to run for the top position as a unity candidate for all opposition forces in Tajikistan, many hoped the presidential election would not be a straightforward run for the incumbent strongman, Rahmon, who has been in charge since 1992.
However, few people really believe that Bobonazarova is the much-awaited agent for change with the strengths to unseat Rahmon, who relies on state machinery that suppresses all dissent inside the country.
Others thought that Tajik society was not ready for a woman leader, although she had the support of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, whose own leader, Muhiddin Kabiri threw his weight behind Bobonazorova rather than nominate himself, fearing reprisals from the authorities who have always tolerated his presence in the political space only because he has never acted beyond the permissible limits set by the regime.
Nominating a female candidate was also a smart tactic by the opposition forces, who thought the government would not use against a woman the rough measures usually reserved for Rahmon's male opponents.
Now that Bobonazorova has been disqualified, Tajik observers believe that the upcoming elections will be anything but free and competitive. The other five candidates are considered to be puppet candidates of the regime, used to present a veneer of democracy to hoodwink the outside world. As has been customary during previous elections, Rahmon's rival candidates will not dare to criticize the president even mildly, and some are likely to even sycophantically ask voters to vote for the incumbent.
In the days leading up to her disqualification, the only genuine opposition candidate, Bobonazarova lambasted Rahmon and his government for incompetence and for failing to revive the national economy by providing jobs to the local people, who migrate in their millions to Russia every year in search of work.
At present, around 2 million Tajik citizens are believed to be working in Russia, and sending back home around US$4 billion in annual remittances which make up around 50% of the country's annual GDP. According to International Monetary Fund and World Bank estimates, Tajikistan is the world's most remittances-dependent country.
With such significant numbers of the working age male population migrating abroad, some thought that a female candidate stood a good chance of winning the votes of at least half of the electorate, and would at least force a run-off. In particular, she would have attracted the votes of other women, many of whom are widows, single mothers and left-behind wives raising their children alone.
Undoubtedly, when Bobonazarova criticized the government for its failure to provide jobs for ordinary people, she would have struck a chord with those whose husbands are away in Russia struggling to sustain their families back home.
Many migrant workers abroad are also considered to be potential protest voters against Rahmon. The Central Election Commission has already announced that due to budget limitations it will open voting stations in Russia only in those cities where Tajikistan has an embassy or consulate.
The fact that Tajik authorities chose to disqualify the most vocal critic of the regime, who was trying to build her election platform on the single most important issue in the contemporary Tajik society - mass migration of the country's male population - demonstrated that she might have really frightened the regime even though, as some claim, she still did not stand a chance of unseating the incumbent in a heavily rigged election.
Surprisingly, the Western countries that might have been expected to stand for the oppressed and rush to the rescue of democracy have so far refrained from even voicing their concern with the Tajik authorities over Bobonazarova's disqualification. Many local human rights and pro-democracy activist say their hearts are broken as the Western powers have let Rahmon trample upon all opposition forces by jailing prominent opposition politicians in the run-up to the election.
The body of another vocal critic of Rahmon, Salim Shamsiddinov, who was the leader of the 1 million-strong ethnic Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, was found in a river in Uzbekistan several weeks ago after his disappearance earlier this year.
For years, many Western countries considered Rahmon as somewhat less of a dictator than other strongmen in the region because of his tolerance of the defanged opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. In April this year, he was given a red-carpet reception in Brussels, both at the headquarters of both the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, parading in front of cameras as he was promised economic aid and other support in return for his help to the NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Bobonazarova, even though denied a chance to run in the upcoming elections, should still be thankful that at least she has survived unscathed after daring to challenge Rahmon and criticizing his government in public.
Fozil Mashrab is a pseudonym used by an independent analyst based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)