Tajik Voters Go to the Polls to Elect President
Polling stations have opened this morning throughout Tajikistan as presidential campaign entered its final stage. About 3.2 million Tajik voters have an opportunity to elect their president for the next seven years with the possible re-election for another seven-year term.
The voting so far has been a very calm and peaceful process. It was widely predicted by analysts that the authorities would ensure that the election is conducted in a free and transparent manner. For the incumbent president and major contender Emomali Rakhmonov this is an opportunity to demonstrate popular support and legitimate hold on power to the outside world.
Compared with the last elections, which I had closely observed in different regions of the country, this presidential election is obviously less marked by discrepancies and irregularities. My personal brief observation of the voting process in three polling stations in the Sino District of Dushanbe today showed that the voting was conducted in a smooth and transparent manner. However, minor irregularities and breaches of the procedure reported after the parliamentary elections in February 2005 were also evident today.
Most voters were allowed to take part in the vote only after presenting their passports. In one of the polling station visited, I witnessed a voter not allowed to take part in the vote without a passport. However, I also observed several incidents when voters were allowed to vote without proper identification. Members of electoral committees required the voters sign for their ballots. Uniformed police officers were not present inside the voting premises. I also did not observe any government official instructing the voters on how to vote. In all polling stations I visited, representatives of different political parties and international watchdogs were present to ensure that the voting process was free and fair. One of the problems that many voters confronted at the polling stations this morning was that their names had not been included in the voter lists. However, the precinct committee members were very helpful and added the names of voters to the supplementary lists in a due procedure.
Despite these positive observations, there are some problems that may challenge the integrity of the election and result in negative assessment of the process by international observers. One of the problems is the voting of Tajik citizens working abroad as labor migrants. Official estimates on the number of Tajik labor migrants working abroad differ significantly from those provided by non-governmental organizations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Government officials argue that the number of labor migrants varies from 300 to 400 thousand depending on the seasonal demand for labor in the countries of destination. IOM estimates suggest that this number varies between 800 thousand and 1 million people, with Russia and Kazakhstan being the most popular destination countries for Tajik labor migrants.
This difference in estimates is very critical for the assessment of election process. Tajiks working abroad as labor migrants are all within the voting age and are among the reported 3.2 million voters. Most of them reportedly have no information on the election and candidates in their home country and do not show up at the few polling stations opened for them in the biggest cities of Russia and Kazakhstan. Therefore, with the IOM-estimated 1 million voters working abroad and not taking part in the vote, the turnout of close to 100 percent previously reported after all elections held in the country becomes very unlikely. Besides, it casts doubt on whether all voters were given an opportunity to express their will.
This time, out of country voting takes place in 26 locations, 14 of which are in CIS states. This number is obviously not sufficient to allow for wide participation of labor migrants in the voting.
Another potential point for criticism is the wide-spread and increasingly popular procedure of family voting. Patriarchic culture often leads to situations when the head of a family votes on behalf of all members of the family. While this practice is less often witnessed in Dushanbe, it is very popular in mountainous and remote regions with stronger patriarchic traditions. This practice may be reflected in the final reports of international election watchdogs.
Besides the voting process, electoral authorities will most likely make sure that the consequent counting of ballots and tabulation of results are conducted in line with Tajikistans internal legislation and international commitments. During the February 2005 parliamentary elections, the OSCE/ODIHR observers evaluated the counting process as poor or very poor in 54 percent of the polling stations visited. They also reported serious breaches of procedures and election law during the tabulation. In a welcome development, the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda (CCER) has recently adopted a decree directing electoral committees to place the results protocols on the walls of polling stations for public familiarization immediately following the completion of counting and tabulation.
Because the Presidential Election Law does not provide for non-partisan domestic observation, detailed information on the integrity of counting and tabulation procedures will only be available in the reports of international observers.
This morning, I have briefly interviewed 50 people who very going to take part in the vote about their voting preferences. 43 of them said they would vote for Emomali Rakhmonov, while 7 persons said they would vote against all candidates. Similar voting pattern is most likely to be prevailing throughout the country.