The Central Asian nation of Tajikistan goes to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election expected to make incumbent Emomali Rakhmon the longest-ruling strongman in the former Soviet state.
Few are anticipating any hiccups for Rakhmon as he closes in on three decades in power and looks to overtake Kazakhstan’s recently retired Nursultan Nazarbayev in the regional longevity stakes.
Rakhmon, 68, has run the Persian-speaking nation of 9.5 million people since 1992, a period including a civil war. He has gradually strengthened his grip and a 2016 constitutional reform removed a limit on the number of terms he could serve.
He faces four other candidates, all of whom are viewed as token opponents, in his bid for a fresh seven-year term.
Polling stations opened at 6am local (01:00 GMT) and will close at 8pm (15:00 GMT), with results expected the following morning.
Voters in the capital Dushanbe interviewed by the AFP news agency overwhelmingly stated their intention to cast their ballot for Rakhmon – and struggled to name the other candidates.
Student Abdukholik Faizov said that this was to be expected and predicted with a smile that “the one who always wins will win again.”
“It is obvious! We are still waiting for free elections,” Faizov explained.
While disputed votes in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and fellow former Soviet republic Belarus have triggered massive upheavals in those countries, similar developments appear unlikely in Tajikistan.
Rakhmon is portrayed by state media as bringing stability to the country following a civil war during the 1990s that pitted government forces against a diverse opposition, including hardline Muslim fighters.
Constitutional changes passed in 2016 allowed the “Founder Of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation”, as Rakhmon is officially known, to run for office an unlimited number of times.
Rights groups have flagged an intensifying crackdown on opposition, media and civil society since the changes took effect.
‘Veneer of campaign’
Few would have guessed that former collective farm boss Rakhmon would stay the course when he was elevated in 1992 to the chairmanship of the national assembly – a position equivalent to head of state.
He was then elected president in 1994 after the position was re-established, and re-elected in 1999, 2006 and 2013.
None of the votes was endorsed by Western electoral observers.
Rakhmon, 68, has run the Persian-speaking nation of 9.5 million people since 1992, a period including a civil war [File: Nozim Kalandarov/AFP]The candidates he faces exist “to give a veneer of campaign to what is otherwise a non-event,” said John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
Heathershaw cited the example of candidate Abduhalim Ghafforov, now challenging Rakhmon for a third time.
A party that many view as the only real opposition force in the country – the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan – announced that it would boycott the vote not long after a date for the ballot was set.
“We see that all power structures, all levers [of government] work for the benefit of one person,” the party’s deputy chairman Shokirjon Hakimov told AFP.
Hakimov added that politics in the country under Rakhmon’s rule has been defined by “nepotism, regionalism and corruption”.
In Tajikistan, any future succession is likely to be hereditary, analysts believe.
Earlier this year, Rakhmon’s son Rustam Emomali was elected chairman of parliament’s upper house in a move that positions him as constitutionally second-in-line to the presidency.
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