I have no doubt that Emomali Rahmon will win the presidential elections on November 6. I am also confident that he will have an easy win. All social media buzz about Oynikhol Bobonazarova – and enthusiastic announcements made by other candidates – ignore one simple fact: most voters in Tajikistan are not aware of any other presidential candidate except Rahmon. This is not going to change during the six weeks remaining before the vote. Most voters will walk in the door at the polls on election day uninformed of their options beyond the incumbent president.
There are two main reasons for the lack of awareness about candidates or their platforms on the part of voters in Tajikistan. First, candidates running against Rahmon do not have the resources and time to make themselves known to voters. The key resource they cannot access is airtime on state-owned television. A recent OSCE/ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission (NAM] report [pdf] notes that, “Television is the predominant source of political information” (p. 6) in the country. My own experience (and I talked to hundreds of people about where they got public information in 2008-2011) shows that state television is frequently the only source of political information for the majority of people in Tajikistan. The only exception are the areas where people speak Uzbek, as the Tajik language programming offered by the state television is not accessible to them. Most Uzbek speakers watch Russian or Uzbek TV (where it is accessible). It is obvious that candidates challenging Rahmon will not have access to airtime on state television outside of the 45 minutes guaranteed by the law (which is not going to be prime-time). In contrast, Rahmon is always on television - and everywhere else in the country.
Of course the much more pluralistic print media and internet will provide some voters with all information they need about candidates. However, information from newspapers and online sources will be limited to voters living in major towns (mainly Dushanbe and Khujand), while more than 70 percent of the country’s population resides in rural areas. And even in Dushanbe, Khujand, and other towns, most people do not use internet (at least as a source of political information) and do not read newspapers.
There is also a sizable group of eligible voters outside of the country, primarily in Russia. According to the authorities, about 900,000 voters, or slightly less than one-fourth of the country’s four million voters, reside abroad. Despite recent reports that opposition parties are actively working among Tajik labor migrants in Russia [ru], I would argue that most of them are even more deprived of information about presidential candidates than voters inside the country. I would even argue that at least half of the voters residing abroad will not even know that presidential elections are held in Tajikistan.
Of course candidates, particularly Bobonazarova with two strong political parties behind her, will try to reach out to voters before the election day. However, they have too little time to do so (they cannot start campaigning before they are formally registered as candidates, which can take awhile) and will face many obstacles from the authorities and security services. Anyway, as a person who lived in Tajikistan and worked closely with political parties, I can say that their campaigning is normally limited to posting low-quality posters on residential buildings (most of which are torn down soon after being posted) and holding occasional meetings with voters (meetings that few voters are aware of ). As a result, people often do not know which candidates are on the ballot before the elections day. Obviously, the authorities try hard to keep it this way, preferring that voters think there is only one candidate. In addition to state television and thousands of portraits across the country, this candidate will have an army of loyal state servants and religious authorities to campaign for him.
Hence, even if voters in Tajikistan were genuinely interested in knowing more about candidates other than the incumbent president, they would have little opportunity to find this information.
Second, a large number of people in Tajikistan care too little about elections or any other political events. As OSCE/ODIHR rightly notes in its report [pdf], “there is a growing level of apathy, particularly among the youth” (p. 2). I remember a conversation I had with a university professor (who supposedly is a little bit better informed of political processes than an average voter) this summer in Dushanbe:
Me: Who do you think will run for president during the elections this fall?
Pr: This fall? Seriously? I thought we had elections recently… President Rahmon will run of course.
Me: Who else? Do you know if any opposition candidates will run?
Pr: I don’t really know. Maybe [Said Abdullo] Nuri.
Me: Nuri? He passed away seven years ago.
Pr: Really? I didn’t know. So, he is dead now?
Pr: Who leads the Islamist Party then?
Me: Muhiddin Kabiri.
Pr: Who is Muhiddin Kabiri? I have never heard of him. Why doesn’t [Hoji Akbar] Turajonzoda lead the party? Is he also dead?
Me: No, he is alive. But he is not even a member of the party.
Pr: Well, to be honest, I don’t care about politics. I know I will vote for Janobi Oli [Emomali Rahmon].
This conversation (which is not in any way unusual for Tajikistan) shows how little voters in the country know about alternative candidates and how little many of them care about becoming better informed.
So, I am sure that most voters in Tajikistan will head to the polls on November 6 aware of only one candidate competing for presidential office. The candidate’s portrait, or several portraits of all sizes, will remind voters of the only ‘correct’ choice they can make. And the voters will make this choice.