Why You Should Care About Tajikistan's Election

The post-Soviet republic's upcoming presidential vote could have large implications for U.S. foreign policy.

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A national flag of Tajikistan is hoisted to the top of the 165-meter (541.34 feet) flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

On November 6, 2013, the post-Soviet republic of Tajikistan is slated for another round of presidential elections and Washington would be wise to take note. The country's current trajectory is deleterious for democracy and has serious implications for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and beyond.

This Central Asian country continues to combat the remnants of its civil war with a quasi-authoritarian regime ruling. Tajikistan's internal political, social and economic instability is further complicated by the 749-mile long land border with Afghanistan, which remains porous and will undoubtedly have an effect on Afghanistan's stability after the scale-down of NATO coalition forces in 2014.

Here's what's happening for those not following Tajikistan. The current president, Emomali Rakhmon, who has been in power since 1992, is hoping to extend his current term, which began in 2006 when he again secured, however suspiciously, the popular vote.

More of Rakhmon would also simply continue the country's corruption, human and drug trafficking, curtailing human rights and civil liberties, and poor socio-economic performance due to mismanagement of resources. It would also make the country more susceptible to instability due to spillover from the poorly managed border with Afghanistan.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Amidst the myriad issues at stake, there are two primary problems with President  Rakhmon that must be addressed.

The first is Rakhmonn's blatant disregard for his country's political system. In a highly contested referendum in 2003, he amended the constitutionally protected two-term limit for the presidential office. Given that constitutional change, should Rakhmon decide to run again in 2013 and win, which is highly probable considering he has not groomed a party successor, he would be the leader of the country until 2020 – a reality that needs to be monitored by U.S. policymakers focused on security and prosperity in Afghanistan.

The people of Tajikistan have seen this story before and don't like it. The monopoly that President Rakhmon's People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) has over the political system is similar to conditions in the country at independence in 1991, which was the precipice for launching the country into a civil war.

Unfortunately, the fix after the civil war didn't last. The post-war power-sharing agreement gave opposition parties, grouped under an umbrella structure known as the United Tajik Opposition, 30 percent of seats within the national parliament. The dominance of Rakhmon and the PDPT party has left opposition parties powerless to enforce the 30 percent power-sharing agreement, and they remain alienated from national politics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

In blocking the opposition voice, Rakhmon has unwittingly generated support for the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the most popularly supported party in Tajikistan with a secular female candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. In the last legislative election in 2005, the party won 8 percent of the popular vote. The IRPT was an illegal political party in the 1990s, due to allegations of connections with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Foreign Terrorist Organization according to the U.S. State Department as of September 2000. Popular support for new opposition voices is illustrative of the discontent with the current president.

The second is the Tajik regime's disregard for nations near and far. Nearby nations, such as Afghanistan, have serious cause for concern regarding their neighbor's November elections and the accompany instability stemming from the Rakhmon regime. Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense and Border Guards, for example, have struggled to establish consistent cooperation along the shared border with Afghanistan since independence. Given the instability within Tajikistan, and the lack of prospect for change in regime control in the next seven years, there are fears that the scale down of Western presence in Afghanistan will create conditions for spillover of instability from Tajikistan, thereby complicating post-2014 Afghanistan politics. 

Western nations have equal cause for concern. To date, the country has never had an election observed and judged "free and fair" by Western observers. In his annual address to parliament and the nation, Rakhmon said that the election would be free and transparent, but that opposition parties should not attempt to use "external help," or Western assistance, in the 2013 election. This is a clear affront to the West.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Going forward, then, lest we witness yet another election where Rakhmon and his party dominate the process, U.S. policymakers would be wise to get involved.

Two specific recommendations come to mind. In order to minimize instability in Tajikistan, the international community needs to apply political pressure at the national level to ensure that all candidates that collected 5 percent of the electorate this month are able to stand in the next election.

Additionally, in order to minimize negative spillover between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, US policymakers should continue to bolster border regulations.

Taken together, these efforts could help mitigate future negative trends for both countries and prevent wider regional instability. No longer can we turn a blind eye to bad policy in Tajikistan, and as we approach November elections, this is the time to do something.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. 

Kimairis Toogood recently served as the Senior Peace-building Trainer and Facilitator with International Alert's Kyrgyzstan-based field office. She previously worked for the U.S. State Department, the U.N. Development Programme and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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