Opposition sidelined as Tajikistan votes in parliamentary polls

Polls closed in Tajikistan Sunday in a parliamentary election that President Emomali Rakhmon's ruling party is expected to sweep, with only one genuinely critical party taking part and the former main opposition banned. The elections are the first in the country's post-Soviet history without the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a moderate faith-based party which was once the main opposition but was outlawed in 2015 and has been the target of a harsh crackdown ever since. The country's Central Election Commission said just over 75 percent of the electorate had cast votes as of 1000 GMT, comfortably beyond the 50 percent threshold required for the commission to validate an election. Rakhmon voted for "a worthy candidate" at a polling station in the capital Dushanbe on Sunday morning, the state agency Khovar reported. Many voters interviewed by AFP stressed their desire to see improvements in the republic's anaemic economy. "We need stronger local industries. New work places. We produce our own cotton but import textiles from China," said 58-year-old Izatullah. "As an ordinary citizen I want to see mechanisms stop the cost of goods outpacing salaries." - Proxies - While Rakhmon's People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan is set for a big win, other parties from the outgoing legislature -- including the Agrarian Party, the Party of Economic Reform and the Socialist Party -- are all widely seen as proxies that endorse his nearly three-decade rule. Only one identifiable opposition party is competing in Sunday's ballot -- the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, which has never entered parliament. The People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan currently dominates the chamber, holding 51 seats out of 63. Preliminary results are expected on Monday. The last elections in 2015 marked a turning point for Tajikistan, a landlocked Muslim-majority country reliant on former overlord Russia for security and neighbouring China for loans and investment. That year, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan failed to make parliament for the first time since the end of a five-year civil war that pitted Islamists, democrats and regional forces against troops loyal to Rakhmon, costing tens of thousands of lives. Within months of falling short of the parliamentary threshold, the party was deemed extremist and banned. Eleven members of its political council were jailed. - 'Falsifications' - Since the party was outlawed, the 67-year-old Rakhmon has strengthened his control over the country. In 2016 he oversaw a referendum that allowed him to rule indefinitely. Some analysts tip his son, Rustam Emomali, currently serving as Mayor of Dushanbe, to succeed him in the near future. Shokir Hakimov, the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan's deputy chairman, told AFP that his party's lack of seats is "not because we lack a base" but because of a "lack of political will, poor electoral legislation and falsifications." The other small parties on the ballot, he said, are "artificially created political structures, which play by the rules of the nomenklatura and keep criticism to within pre-agreed limits." The buildup to Sunday's vote saw well-known journalist and government critic Daler Sharipov jailed as part of a wave of over a hundred arrests that began at the end of last year. Authorities have said the sweep is targeting the Muslim Brotherhood movement, another banned group. Long regarded as the poorest country in the ex-Soviet Union, Tajikistan has seen its poverty rate decline over the last two decades to around 29 percent in 2017. Hundreds of thousands of the 4.7 million electorate live and work in Russia, where polling stations will be set up at the country's embassy in Moscow and consulate in Saint Petersburg.