DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan’s president, Imomali Rakhmon, has won a new seven-year term after his only serious rival was barred from running, but he faces a challenge to ensure stability in a volatile country that borders Afghanistan.
The Moscow-backed strongman leader, at the helm of the poorest former-Soviet nation since 1992, keeps Tajikistan’s small and disparate opposition in check, and civil society is weak. But he faces rising social tension in a Muslim nation where nearly half the 8 million population live in poverty.
Rakhmon received 83.1 percent of the vote in Wednesday’s election after all ballots were counted, Central Election Commission Chairman (CEC) Shermukhammad Shokhiyon told a news briefing. Turnout at the election was 86.6 percent.
“The election of the president of the Republic of Tajikistan was held in strict conformity with the law and in line with the principles of democracy, freely and transparently,” Shokhiyon said.
Rakhmon, a 61-year-old former Soviet state farm head, ran against five little-known, mainly loyal candidates.
His only serious rival, 65-year-old rights activist Oynihol Bobonazarova, had said her backers had been obstructed in trying to gather the 210,000 signatures needed to run.
Shokhiyon said the CEC had received no complaints from the candidates, voters or observers during and after the vote.
Rakhmon has overseen constitutional amendments that lengthened and increased the number of terms he can be president. The new seven-year term he has won must be his last and he must step down in 2020, according to the constitution.
The West has not recognised a single election in Tajikistan to be free and fair. A delegation of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election, is due to present its conclusions later on Thursday.
Bobonazarova, backed by the Islamic Revival Party, Tajikistan’s second largest political force, and by the liberal Social Democrats, berated Rakhmon for his rising personality cult and crackdowns on independent media and religious freedom.
Tajik political analyst Saimiddin Dustov called the vote “a travesty of an election”. “Civil society is indignant, but due to its weakness it lacks resolve to take any action,” he said.
“This means that this imitation of an election was successful, and Mr. Rakhmon has been given carte blanche to do what he pleases, as it was always the case before.”
Tajikistan, where tens of thousands of people were killed during a 1992-97 civil war in which Rakhmon’s Moscow-backed secular government fought against Islamist militants, remains a poor country in Central Asia riven by ethnic divisions.
Conflicts have occurred across the border in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan, courted by the West and Russia for its energy resources and strategic position, has suffered sporadic bombings and shootings authorities blame on Islamist militants.
In a sign of continued instability, Rakhmon had to send troops and armour to quell the riotous Gorno-Badakhshan region in the country’s east in July last year after rebels of a former warlord killed a security services general there, defying the authority of his government.
Many of Rakhmon’s opponents in the civil war won by his secular government are now in the Islamic Revival Party.
By barring moderate opposition candidate Bobonazarova, secular authorities risk radicalising the opposition.
“Rakhmon now has two options - either he musters up courage and launches reforms in society and structures of state power; or he continues with his old policies, in which case he won’t stay in power until 2020,” Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, a senior member of the Islamic Revival Party, told Reuters.
Rakhmon, like other Central Asian leaders, could face security threats from Islamist militants in neighbouring Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal of U.S.-led forces in 2014. Tajikistan also lies on a heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.
In October, Dushanbe ratified a deal with Moscow under which Russian soldiers will be deployed at a base in Tajikistan for three decades. In return, Tajik officials said, Rakhmon won a deal allowing some duty-free imports of oil products and agreement by Moscow not to get tougher on Tajik migrants.
Rakhmon has repeatedly voiced concerns that the spread of a militant form of Islam similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan could shatter the peace in his country.
The Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which unites six former Soviet republics, said in September that it would provide “additional collective assistance” to Tajikistan to guard its border with Afghanistan after the pullout of most U.S.-led combat troops in 2014.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Elizabeth Piper