Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message

Opposition Islamists support a secular presidential candidate to improve their image.

The outcome of Tajikistan’s November presidential election is easy to predict. Emomalii Rahmon will be reelected in a landslide. However, the ballot will also list Oynihol Bobonazarova, a secular lawyer and human rights activist recently tapped by the opposition, including Central Asia’s single legal Islamist party, to run against the first and only president of the former Soviet republic.

Bobonazarova is at first glance an odd choice for the United Reformist Force, an opposition coalition comprised of Islamists, social democrats and several nongovernmental groups.

The Islamists boycotted the 2006 election and failed to put up a candidate for a 2011 by-election for a vacated parliament seat, saying in conjunction with the boycotting social democrats that until election laws were changed, government officials will always be able to manipulate the outcome in advance. Although the Islamists did not encourage their members to boycott the 2011 election, it is clear the opposition forces in Tajikistan are dejected about their chances of electoral victory in any settling.

The upcoming presidential election marks a potential breaking point for perennial president Rahmon. Elected in 1994 and again in 1999. A 1999 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and a 2003 package of constitutional amendments included a provision permitting a second consecutive term. Although the limit of two terms exists on paper, supporters of Rahmon argue that the limit only applies to elections following the 2003 adoption of the amendments. Rahmon is set to run again this November.

Even the coalition putting Bobonazarova forward doesn’t expect her to win. The Islamist leader said, “we might lose the election but we can use this opportunity to send out out message.” That message may fall on deaf ears internationally where the word “Islamism” tends to conjure up images of terrorism. The Tajik party’s support for Bobonazarova is therefore an image move — to prove its moderation and brevity; its willingness to “work with other democratic forces outside the country.”

The message might resonate outside Tajikistan but it is more likely that it will be lost in the global din. Despite the flurry of excitement around Bobonazarova’s nomination, and everything it represents — moderation, cooperation — the state controls the media and Rahmon is the only candidate with widespread name recognition. Although the political elites of Tajikistan will steer the election results anyway, the argument is ready made that Bobonazarova is a nobody, unknown beyond the human rights and NGO communities.

But Bobonazarova will run. Government tactics of pinning opposition candidates with trumped up criminal charges will not easily fly against a female human rights lawyer with a clean record (except for a conviction for being a member of an opposition party in the early years of independence). Akbar Turajonzoda, a religious figure in Tajikistan and former Islamist party leader, doubts that the government will move to charge Bobonazarova with anything, even if campaign staff report obstacles being put up to impede Bobonazarova’s run.

Other candidates have not been so lucky. In May, Zayd Saidov, a businessman and opposition leader, was arrested on charges of fraud and polygamy. The relatively unknown opposition leader Umarali Kuvatov was conveniently arrested last December in Dubai at the behest of the Tajik government, also on charges of fraud.

The Islamists, if they are able to reap any benefits from their support of Bobonazarova, will have to wait for many years for a real chance at electoral success. Either Rahmon dies or he serves two more full terms. At 61, it is plausible that Rahmon lives out two more terms and then faces the hurdle of amending the Constitution again. For the Islamists, building up evidence of broad appeal, political moderation and a willingness to cooperate with secular institutions will prove useful when a real opportunity at power emerges.