Tajikistan’s presidential race just got a lot less interesting.
The only serious opposition candidate for the November election says she has failed to register. Oynihol Bobonazarova, a human rights activist, says authorities made it impossible for her to gather the required number of signatures to enroll as a candidate.
Bobonazarova, the candidate for the Union of Reformist Forces, had previously accused police of interfering in her campaign and harassing supporters who were trying to collect signatures. She said this morning she collected just over 201,000 signatures; the Central Election Commission requires 210,000.
"My opponent was not only [incumbent strongman Emomali] Rakhmon, but the whole state machine," Bobonazarova said at a news conference October 11, Asia-Plus reported. She added that government officials even tried to prevent her from getting the necessary stationary: “I didn’t think there would be so many obstacles and difficulties” to collecting signatures.
Six other candidates, including Rakhmon, have registered. Several are from so-called “pocket opposition” parties designed to bestow on the exercise the image of plurality, but which are loyal to the president.
Bobonazarova’s candidacy had excited the urban, online intelligentsia. She was the surprise choice of the two main opposition parties – the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the Social Democratic Party – which have failed to inspire, and overcome relentless government-backed smear campaigns, in recent elections. Besides being a female candidate in a conservative country, Bobonazarova came with bona fide activist credentials, untainted by business dealings or a flashy past.
Her views might sound standard in the West, but are something unusual in deeply corrupt Tajikistan, where a ruling caste positions itself above the law and the population at large. “The servants of the people must be real servants, not masters with special privileges,” Bobonazarova told EurasiaNet.org recently.
But as a relatively unknown activist from Dushanbe’s beleaguered civil society, she was also seen as an experiment, possibly to burnish the images of the IRPT and SDP for future campaigns. "We might lose the election, but we can use this opportunity to send out our message," IRPT head Muhiddin Kabiri was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last month. “Some mistrust us, and have certain suspicions. Some use the party's Islamic name against us, spreading rumors that we would seek to create an Islamic state in Tajikistan if we won the election."
Little known, Bobonazarova was unlikely to present a serious challenge to Rakhmon, who has ruled since 1992 and has overseen changes in the constitution to allow him to run for another seven-year term on November 6.
That begs the question: What are authorities afraid of? Though Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by credible observers, Rakhmon would likely win any poll by a fair margin simply because he is the known candidate and the opposition does not have access to institutional resources, like non-stop adoring television coverage.
Rakhmon can also bank on the argument one blogger made last month, and which EurasiaNet.org has heard in one form or another repeatedly in Tajikistan: It’s better to go with the devil you know, than with a “hungry” unknown who has not yet stolen his fill: “A full leader is better than a hungry one.”