On September 9, the Alliance of Reformist Forces of Tajikistan (ARFT) announced that its members will support a unified candidate during the presidential elections set for November 6, 2013. The Alliance includes the country’s two leading opposition parties, the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) and Social-Democratic Party (SDPT), as well as a number of non-governmental organizations and prominent individuals. During the upcoming elections, these diverse political forces will rally behind Oynihol Bobonazarova, a 65-year old woman lawyer and human rights activist, not currently associated with any political party.
The announcement followed uneasy negotiations between the members of the ARFT over a candidate who would be acceptable to their very different constituencies. The IRPT is the largest opposition group in the country and perhaps the one closest resembling a genuine political party with strong social and ideological roots as well as a complex organizational structure. The group served as a leading force in the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) which fought against the government of incumbent President Emomali Rahmon during the 1992-1997 civil war. The IRPT’s main support bases are the traditionally more religious communities in the eastern Rasht Valley (Gharm) and the southwestern region of Qurghonteppa (Kurgan-Tube), although it has supporters throughout the country. The SDPT, in contrast, draws its support from among a much narrower group of urban-based intelligentsia united around the party’s leader, prominent lawyer and activist Rahmatillo Zoyirov.
The IRPT is by far the strongest political force in the Alliance, and the party’s leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, faced strong pressure from members and supporters to run for president. By agreeing to throw his support behind a female presidential candidate, who is neither a member of the IRPT nor known as a very pious person, Kabiri risked alienating many of his constituencies. In order to prevent this from happening and to legitimate Bobonazarova in the eyes of the party’s conservative and patriarchal membership, Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, a prominent Islamic leader who had served as part of the IRPT’s senior leadership in the past, was made Bobonazarova’s proxy (doverennoye litso).
Kabiri has also stressed that the party’s late founder and leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, had a high regard for Bobonazarova and even nominated her as Deputy Prosecutor General as part of a government quota awarded to the UTO after the civil war. She refused the nomination in 1997. On September 17, the IRPT’s congress endorsed Bobonazarova as a presidential candidate. Barzu Abdurazzokov, a prominent Tajik theater and film director, also accepted an offer to become Bobonazarova’s proxy during the congress.
The SDPT, whose leadership had worked closely with Bobonazarova in the past, will find it much less difficult to identify with her personality and political views. Zoyirov has urged the country’s civil society, social media activists, and members of the Tajik opposition in exile to support Bobonazarova.
In order to formally enter the presidential contest, Bobonazarova still needs to gather 210,000 signatures from her supporters before October 7. Although the country’s veteran leader President Rahmon has not yet announced whether he would seek re-election, few people in the country doubt that he will join the contest. Rahmon will almost certainly run for the office which he has held since 1993. The Democratic Party (DPT) and Agrarian Party (APT) have also nominated their candidates, while the Communist Party (CPT) and Socialist Party (SPT) have announced their intention to run for the presidency.
Rahmon will almost certainly win the upcoming elections and thus ensure another seven years in office for himself (the current constitution does not allow him to hold the office beyond 2020). During the contest, Bobonazarova is expected to be the second most popular candidate. However, she is not likely to pose any serious challenge to Rahmon. The country’s first ever female presidential candidate is virtually unknown to voters outside of major urban centers. During the seven weeks remaining before the elections, she is unlikely to win many votes without access to state-controlled television or to other advantages afforded to the incumbent president, such as the full control of the election administration, legions of loyal, state-employed voters, religious authorities, army conscripts, and the ability to blend official duties and campaign activity.
Besides, even if Bobonazarova had many voters to support her on election day, there would be no guarantee that these votes would count. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free of fair by western observers, and it is very difficult to gauge to what extent the election results reported by the authorities reflect the voters’ will.
A lawyer by education, Bobonazarova was among the founders of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT) in the late 1980s. After the DPT joined the IRPT in fighting against the “constitutional” government (headed by Rahmon after November 1992), Bobonazarova was arrested in 1993 and charged with treason and a coup attempt. She was later pardoned by Rahmon and, from 1996-2004, she served as an adviser with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office in Tajikistan. From 1996 to 2007, Bobonazarova headed Tajikistan’s branch of the Soros Foundation (now called Open Society Foundations), a philanthropic organization supporting democracy and human rights. After 2007, she led a Western-funded human rights NGO involved in monitoring prisons, fighting against torture, and defending the rights of women and labor migrants.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, published originally in CACI Analyst on September 18, 2013)