As of March 4, results from Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections show the People’s Democratic Party led by President Emomali Rakhmon winning 54 seats in the 63-seat lower chamber. Other parties – namely the Islamic Revival Party, the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party and the Economic Development Party* – won two seats each.

Depending on whom you believe, this outcome is either the vindication of the long-sighted platform put forward by the pro-presidential party or the outcome of systemic fraud.

In any case, the composition of parliament remains almost unchanged; the Communists have lost a couple of deputies, and the government party has lost a few seats to two dummy opposition parties that essentially materialized from nowhere, despite them having absolutely no public profile to speak of.

Reactions have varied from weary disdain to creeping dread about what lies ahead for Tajikistan. So what does the future hold in store: stagnation, tentative development or spiraling instability and a descent into worsening authoritarianism?

Kabiri: Two to Tango?

The fate of the Islamic Revival Party seems a useful illustration of general tendencies. Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri optimistically predicted before the vote that the IRP would win 10 seats. Kabiri has also insisted, since results were announced, that his party claimed at least 30 percent of votes cast, far more than the 7.7 percent officially attributed to it.

Kabiri earned some glowing write-ups on the eve of the election, and was cast by Radio Free Europe as a secular modernizer, complete with clean-shaven look and suit. Indeed, Kabiri seems like a confident and interesting personality, while his party has conducted a lively campaign, with supporters hitting the pavements and taking the message from door-to-door. The IRP also benefits from a natural hard-core base due to its regional roots and its, admittedly soft-focus, religious stripes.

One strand of thought on the eve of the elections had it that the IRP could be gradually co-opted by the government as a useful pressure valve for Islamic currents. There are monthly reports of arrests of adherents to banned groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, not to speak of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist organization. IRP represents the respectable face of political Islam and it has gone to great lengths to disavow the values of those underground groups and reject the notion of creating an Islamic state.

Kabiri, who lived and studied in Yemen during Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, also adamantly insists his party has received no support from foreign movements or governments.

Even more propitiously for Rakhmon’s regime, as suggested above, the IRP does not even make any claims to power. The party’s very modest expectation of claiming less than one-sixth of the available seats in parliament was an advance declaration of defeat and evinced a clear desire to engage in a compromise stance from the outset.

"Check if any of those pesky OSCE people are coming?"

Why then would Rakhmon’s party, with the connivance of the Central Elections Commission refuse to accept the possibility of admitting the existence of the IRP as a weak, if viable, opposition?

Broadly, and crudely, speaking there is something in the Central Asian-Soviet regime mindset that determines that legitimacy can only be conferred by appearing to gain an absurdly and implausibly large swathe of popular support (with 72 percent of the vote and an 87 percent turnout, more than 62.5 percent of registered voters supposedly cast their ballot for deputies from the People’s Democratic Party). To put it more succinctly, again and again, crooked post-Soviet leaders decide that legitimacy is earned by numbers, not process.

Rakhmon also evidently believes that compromise is not a necessity. That much has been evident from the immediate postwar years, when Rakhmon’s Kulyabi clan began reneging on power-sharing commitments made during the peace negotiations. Over time, the legitimate Islamic opposition has been squeezed out and, all the while, the authorities have been muscularly stamping out alleged militants or terrorists (whatever you want to call them) and their troublesome teenage chai-wallahs**.

This steady process cannot but add impetus to the widely held theory that all the government is contriving to do is drive Islamic movement underground, where they will fester and grow malignant. Perhaps Rakhmon looks with hidden admiration to Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov’s intransigent line has led to apparent success in terrifying and extirpating potential violent radicalism into virtual extinction. Or even to Kyrgyzstan, which has been seemingly blessed with a lack of active extremist groups, but whose forces have also claimed victories in the fight against terrorist groups.

Those parallels can be misleading, because the countries are so fundamentally different in their political structures, demographics and recent legacies.

But what should be clear is that all the leaders of these countries pursue a malign and dangerous logic drawn from the small blueprint: Crush the religious underground, while using it as the straw man justification for quashing basic democratic freedoms in the name of some hazy indigenous notion of national development.

Because Tajikistan’s regime is no less absolutist than those of its ex-Soviet neighbors, its pursuit of unfettered power cannot allow for the appearance of an opposition in the ascendancy. Therefore, the Islamic Revival Party must wither or remain stunted, and those that desert it for the radical fringes will be hunted down without mercy.

Pretending for a moment that Rakhmon is driven by something other than megalomania, greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, what else would explain this desire to remain so utterly unchallenged?

Wanting to make a purely academic argument, one could argue that the Rakhmon regime has come to understand that its model for the country’s future economic prosperity, which appeared predicated almost entirely on the success of the Roghun hydroelectric dam, requires absolute control and supremacy.

It is true that Rakhmon’s government will need total control over all levers of power to get away with squeezing the population as hard as it is doing to raise the money needed to build Roghun.

Road to Ruin or Stairway to Heaven?

A little bit of background here – The Tajik government has issued $1.3 billion worth of stock in Roghun and it hopes the cashless population will be able to stump up the sum and pay, which will cover the cost of building the plant’s first two units. According to plans, Roghun will eventually comprise six 600 megawatt units, which would be more than enough to supply the country with its own electricity needs and leave enough left over to export to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Having broken off a deal with Russia’s RusAl some years ago and realizing that nobody would want anything to do with a project rife with peril from corruption and intemperate Uzbek resistance, Tajikistan has decided to go the first part alone. The government ensures Roghun will pay dividends (literally) in spades, although Rakhmon seems curiously reluctant to sink his ill-gotten hundreds of million (if not billions) into the enterprise, but that is hardly surprising.

No, this will need a Soviet-style combination of ceaseless propaganda and strong-arming. And there is no room for even the smallest hint of dissent in this scenario.

Cynicism apart, the publicity drive does appear to have been successful and will ensure that the anger that should be brimming over will be tempered for some to come.

Kabiri has warned that he will bring his supporters onto the streets in a peaceful and legal protest against the fraudulent elections, but there are all too many reasons to think this call will not be heeded, if it is even formally issued in the first place.

Christian Bleuer at Registan.net predicts conflict fatigue – a legacy of the civil war – and the IRP’s inability to mobilize and organize mass crowds makes a successful protest unlikely. This is a fair but perhaps only partial explanation for what seems like the most probable outcome.

There is a case to be made that the People’s Democratic Party and Rakhmon have been successful in ramming home the anodyne, but effective, rhetoric of sustainable development, stability and energy independence.

The fact that many people may bought into this line makes it all the more tragic that the corruption, incompetence and thoughtless callousness of the Rakhmon regime is likely only to drive Tajikistan further to the brink of collapse and conflict.

* These two parties were both created in 2005, the year of the last parliamentary elections. The Economic Reform Party, led by Olim Boboyev, reputedly has 17,000 registered members. The Agrarian Party, led by former Soviet apparatchik Amir Karakulov, has 20,500 members.

** Last month, Soghd regional court jailed four men for “involvement” with the IMU, including 16-year-old schoolboy Nasibulloh Zabirzoda. The court found Zabirzoda guilty of providing his uncle, an IMU member, with food and provisions.

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