The results of authoritarian Tajikistan’s October 11 presidential elections came as little surprise: For the fifth time, 68-year-old incumbent President Emomali Rahmon, known officially as “leader of the nation,” swept the polls, with 90.92 percent of the vote, according to official preliminary results. But Rahmon’s biggest challenge may still lie ahead: bringing Tajikistan’s debt-ridden economy out of its coronavirus slump.
“[T]hey must battle with the economy and everything will be defined by the economy,” commented Karimdjan Akhmedov, a former Tajik deputy economy minister.
Since 1994, when Rahmon, then head of Tajikistan’s governing Supreme Council, first ran for president, “people have just become apolitical,” Akhmedov said. “They have one priority: How to feed themselves and how to feed their family.”
Tajikistan’s poverty rate decreased from 83 percent of the population in 2000 to 27.4 percent of its then 9.1 million residents in 2018, according to the World Bank. The economy, dominated by mining, had been expanding by 7 percent per year, on average, based on official figures, but this year may post no higher growth than 1 percent.
That could pose problems for repaying the country’s external debt, which amounted to nearly 40 percent (or $2.9 billion) of its Gross Domestic Product in January 2019.
In May, the International Monetary Fund extended $189 million at a zero-percent interest rate to assist Tajikistan with its balance of payments and overall economy during the pandemic. Reimbursing the debt will begin only in 2025.
But pandemic payments to the underprivileged are not going according to schedule.
In early May, the government announced one-time payments of 500 soms (about $50) to 50,000 families in need. However, after four months, only roughly a third of this number -- 17,000 families -- have received this support. Officials blame bureaucracy for the delay, which they stress will soon be corrected.
Dushanbe cleaning woman Sabokhat Orifova, a widow who has been raising three children on a monthly income of about $65, said in September that she had been going to pick up her allotment for three months without result.
“They constantly tell me, ‘Come tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,’” Orifova told Current Time. Though she has demonstrated her need to officials, they recently admitted that they had not checked yet to see if she had made the cut for the assistance, Orifova claimed.
Some government critics attribute the fact that the presidential elections were held in October, a month earlier than usual, to such economic problems, said Tajikistan-born journalist Oleg Panfilov, who worked in the country until the early 1990s. Some regions of the country have lost electricity, he added.
“Therefore, Dushanbe allegedly prefers to hold the elections before the situation gets worse,” Panfilov commented.
The government, though, attributes the earlier election date to “the coronavirus pandemic" -- with 10,260 cumulative cases, Tajikistan has Central Asia's lowest official infection rate -- and "better access to the country’s mountainous regions [now] than in the colder months.”
It has pledged to more than triple incomes by 2030 and slash 50 percent off the poverty rate. The World Bank believes that this goal is “achievable” if Tajikistan encourages the private sector to expand and create more jobs. Though private companies account for 60 percent of Tajikistan’s roughly $8.15 billion economy, the firms are small and without robust “productivity and dynamism,” according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
But other countries’ economic woes impact Tajikistan as well. Remittances from labor migrants abroad play a critical role in supplementing average per capita annual income of just $537.37.
In 2019, these payments amounted to roughly 29 percent of GDP, the highest rate in Central Asia, the World Bank reported. But in the first six months of 2020, that money flow from Russia, home to millions of Tajik labor migrants, decreased by nearly 40 percent to $681 million, according to the Central Bank of Russia.
If such payments continue to decrease amidst the pandemic, “the situation will be very difficult,” predicted Akhmetov.
If turmoil erupts, it will be for economic, rather than political, reasons, he added.
Voters interviewed by Current Time in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, all shared the hope that living standards, social-welfare support, and job availability would improve after the elections. None of those interviewed had read any of the five candidates’ campaign platforms, however, to know what they offered in this area.
More than an 87 percentage-point spread existed between Rahmon and his closest rival, Agrarian Party Chairman Rustam Latifzoda, who received 3.03 percent of the vote. The Economic Reform Party’s Rustam Rakhmatzoda received 2.19 percent; the Socialist Party’s Abdukhalim Gafforzoda, a repeat candidate, gained 1.49 percent; while the Communist Party’s Mirodzh Abdulloyev received a mere 1.17 percent.
The president was “the only active politician” among them, commented blogger Rustam Gulov.
“What they’re doing, what they’ve been doing these past seven years [since the last presidential elections], what initiatives did they have, what they want to do other than [build] a subway in Tajikistan if they suddenly become president, I personally don’t know.”
None of Tajikistan’s presidential elections has ever been recognized as democratic by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or Western states. A delegation from the Russia-dominated Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States evaluated the 2020 vote, in which over 85 percent of voters allegedly took part, as precisely that, however.
While some Tajiks expressed pride in their right to vote, few knew anything about Rahmon’s four contenders. “I’ll go vote, of course, but I don’t know the other candidates,” said one young Dushanbe man. “We’ll see there [at the polling station], read [their names] through.”
“It’s all the same to me who to vote for,” commented another young man, who said he went to vote at his family’s urging. “I’ll just go and make a mark [on the ballot].”
Rahmon’s four rivals ultimately conceded the vote to the Tajik leader. Socialist Party candidate Abdukhalim Gafforzoda stated that there was nothing unusual in the fact that they received far fewer votes than signatures to register their candidacies.
“If that’s what the people decided, we can only approve their choice,” Gafforzoda said, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reported.
-With additional reporting by ASIA-Plus, the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, and TASS