Marginalization of Tajikistan’s Political Opposition Could Threaten Security
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor
By: Mark Vinson
The Jamestown Foundation
On March 1, Tajikistan held parliamentary elections. The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) officially received less than 2 percent of the votes cast and lost its only two seats in the 63-member parliament (BBC Tajik, March 17). While Tajikistan has never had an election judged to be free and fair by credible international bodies, the results of this election surprised even domestic political analysts. Until this election, the IRPT had been the only real opposition party in Tajikistan to hold national office. Their exclusion from even a nominal presence in Tajikistan’s rubber stamp parliament is the culmination of a trend that began in 2000 when they held eight seats. This number has been cut in half in each successive election to four in 2005, two in 2010, and now zero (Ozodi, March 17).
On March 3, in a consolation speech addressing party delegates, IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri stressed that the party is committed to implementing its moderate Islamist agenda within the legal framework of politics and his main priority is that of preserving Tajikistan’s peace. In his remarks, he urged all party representatives to encourage members in their districts to “observe the rule of law and [seek] calm and stability in all circumstances” (Nahzat, March 3).
The IRPT has struggled to cling to relevance over the years as harassment of its members has increased (see EDM, April 29, 2014). During presidential elections in 2013, it joined forces with an unlikely ally—the Socialist Democratic Party of Tajikistan (SDPT)—to put forth an even more unlikely coalition candidate Oinihol Bobonazarova, a female human rights lawyer of a secular bent (see EDM, November 8, 2013). Kabiri, the head of the IRPT, sold the coalition to his base as a pragmatic strategy, but soon thereafter, Tajikistan’s Central Commission for Elections and Referenda (CCER) did not allow Bobonazarova on the ballot for dubious reasons.
In recent years, the IRPT has struggled to convince voters that political participation in Tajikistan is not futile. In a February campaign speech to party members in the religiously conservative district of Isfara, Kabiri devoted significant time to making the case for the legitimacy of Islamic parties. The argument was not directed at secular-leaning voters who think that Islam does not have a place in politics, but rather at fundamentalists who believe that Islamic parties are bid’ah (a heretical innovation) (YouTube, February 20). In separate remarks, Kabiri reiterated the need for patience with the political process remarking, “If, God forbid, we are not patient, then the consequences will be bad for all of us” (Nahzat, March 3).
Two days later, his point was highlighted by the murder of opposition activist Umarali Quvatov, who was gunned down in the streets of Istanbul while leaving a party (Ozodagon, March 18). Quvatov was the head of the exiled opposition organization “Group 24,” which was banned in Tajikistan in October of 2014 after calling for EuroMaidan-style street protests in Dushanbe that never materialized (see EDM, October 17, 2014). Turkish police have identified a Tajikistani national named Suleyman Qayumov as the lead suspect in the murder (Hurriyet Daily News, March 21). While no connection between Qayumov and the Tajikistani government has been established, the murder sparked comparisons of the killing of Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov (Asia-Plus, March 9). The government did not ease suspicions when, barely a week later, it sentenced two members of Group 24 to 16.5 years in prison (Ozodi, March 13).
Whether or not the government is ultimately implicated in Quvatov’s murder, the past few weeks demonstrate the Emomali Rahmon government’s clumsiness in handling the opposition. Quvatov’s exiled group has never garnered widespread support in Tajikistan, and his calls for protests last October went unheeded. As such, it is hard to imagine that such heavy-handed techniques are necessary to neutralize the threat to President Rahmon. By contrast, the IRPT has traditionally had significant numbers of supporters, but has only ever held a small minority of seats in parliament. The IRPT’s complete ouster from the legislature will likely be counter productive as it will force dissent to move outside of the legal framework of politics.
Rahmon’s questionable political choices were further highlighted this month by his decision to appoint his widely disliked 27-year-old son Rustam to head the country’s anti-corruption agency (BBC Tajik, March 16). The Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption has routinely been used to eliminate President Rahmon’s enemies (such as Quvatov) and protect the system of patronage and corruption among the ruling elite in Tajikistan. With the IRPT effectively eliminated, hope in legal opposition politics as an avenue to effect change has also been eliminated. While this may simply engender cynicism or resignation in some, it might also strengthen the appeal of banned movements (Islamist or otherwise) that pose a more serious threat to state security.
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Photo: Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan leader Muhiddin Kabiri (Source: ozodagon.com)