Tajik Ruling Party Expected To Secure Victory In First Parliamentary Elections Since Key Opposition Banned

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Tajiks voted in parliamentary elections on March 1 in which President Emomali Rahmon's ruling party was widely expected to secure a sweeping victory, with only one opposition party participating in the vote.

It was the authoritarian Central Asian nation's first parliamentary elections since a ban was imposed nearly five years ago on the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), a leading opposition group.

Just before polls closed, Tajikistan's Central Election Commission said over 75 percent of eligible voters some 3.7 million voters cast ballots, well above the 50 percent mark to make the vote valid under Tajik law.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was the only opposition group that contested the elections. The party has never entered parliament.

The election commission said preliminary results would be released on March 2.

Election commission Chairman Bakhtiyor Khudoyorzoda earlier told reporters that 3,412 polling centers had created "conditions for a transparent and fair election."

None of the votes of the past two decades have been deemed free and competitive by Western observers, which again this year includes the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

In an instance of one of the most widespread problems, proxy voting, an RFE/RL correspondent saw a single voter cast 22 ballots.

One video that appeared online showed a single person ticking dozens of ballots for the ruling party, and another clip showed a Tajik migrant in Russia saying he was told to vote for the ruling party or lose his job.

President Rahmon's People's Democratic Party is widely expected to retain a majority in the 63 seat Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of parliament.

Rahmon, who has ruled since taking power in 1992 with the country embroiled in a five year civil war, turned up to vote early in the day, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.

Six other smaller parties took part in the elections.

The SDP registered five candidates after it was forced to reduce the initial eight strong party list due to lack of money to pay the nearly $600 application fee per nominee.

The SDP was unable in past elections to pass the 5 percent minimum barrier to get a seat in the legislature. The party has blamed it on Tajik authorities' failure to hold free and fair elections.

Past elections in Tajikistan were marred by allegations of fraud, including ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, and the disregard of the vote counting procedures by election officials.

The government has long been criticized for clamping down on opposition groups and critics.

Opposition movement Group 24 was banned as an extremist organization in 2014, and the IRPT was branded a terrorist organization the following year after losing its final two seats in parliament in the 2015 elections. Both deny the allegations.

Muhiddin Kabiri, the IRPT leader, said the opposition urged its supporters to vote for the Social Democrats instead of simply ignoring the elections.

We know that these elections won't be transparent and democratic, but we still want to use this very small window of opportunity to try to convince people once again that the only peaceful way to bring changes to society is through the elections, Kabiri told RFE/RL on February 27.

Parliament in Tajikistan is seen as rubber stamp body, while real political power is consolidated in the hands of President Rahmon.

The Central Election Commission said 241 candidates were registered to participate in the elections.

Forty one lawmakers will be elected from single mandate districts, and the other 22 seats are determined by the party list system.

In the single mandate districts, a candidate must receive 50 percent plus one of votes to win outright in the first round.

If no candidate reaches that level, the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a second round.

According to the Central Election Commission, there are 4,793,282 eligible voters, including labor migrants residing abroad.

Widespread unemployment has forced hundreds of thousands of Tajik to become migrant workers in Russia.

Tajikistan's embassy in Moscow said it has prepared five polling stations in Russia for Tajik migrants workers to vote.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.