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With main opposition disqualified, Rakhmon looks to repeat as Tajik president

Voters in Tajikistan are set to hand their president an easy victory for a fourth term. The five opposition candidates are virtual unknowns even inside the country, with next to no chance of victory.

Tajiks began voting at 6 a.m. local time (0100 UTC) Wednesday in an election almost certain to give a fourth term to 61-year-old President Emomali Rakhmon (right in above photo) after officials ruled that the only real opposition candidate, the rights lawyer Oinikhol Bobonazarova of the Islamic Revival Party, had failed to muster the signatures required to register her candidacy.

Bobonazarova gathered only 202,000 of the 210,000 signatures required for 5 percent of the electorate, a shortfall her party blamed on harassment by local authorities.

"The opposition is not represented in these elections," Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, the spokesman for Bobonazarova's party, told the news agency AFP. "Even the registered candidates are not opposed to the president."

Tajikistan requires a turnout of at least 50 percent to make an election valid. Rakhmon won the last election, in 2006, with nearly 80 percent of the ballot on a reported turnout of about 90 percent, and many expected him to do just as well this time around. By Wednesday afternoon local time, officials had reported a turnout of 68 percent so far of the 4 million eligible voters in the country of 8 million people, about half of whom live in poverty.

"We have so many problems, and they keep singing odes in his honor," Bobonazarova told the news agency Reuters ahead of the election. "They extol him, and later on they say terrible things about him."

The president initially took power in 1992, at the start of Tajikistan's five-year civil war. He has made energy independence key to his campaign, particularly ensuring construction of his Rogun hydroelectric dam. However, he also has deeply acrimonious relations with Islam Karimov, the president of neighboring Uzbekistan, who has accused Tajikistan of trying to rob his country of water resources and effectively warned that the building of the Rogun dam could lead to war.

'Lack of democracy'

After his initial wartime appointment by the Tajik Supreme Soviet in 1992, Rakhmon enjoyed easy re-elections in 1994, 1999 and 2006. With the Tajik presidential mandate now seven years, he could potentially stay in power until 2020.

Ahead of Wednesday, the opposition Social Democratic Party announced that it would boycott the elections because of "a lack of democracy and transparency." The remaining five challengers all have praised Rakhmon.

In a bid to lift the electorate's mood, the government promised not to cut power supplies anywhere in the country as long as polling stations remained open. And Rakhmon, the father of nine children - one of whom he has tipped as a possible successor - warned candidates ahead of the polls not to disrupt the state's stability and to behave with "full patriotic responsibility."

That shouldn't be too much of a problem: The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, monitoring the polls, noted in its interim report that "there is no visible campaign by other candidates so far."

For many years, Rakhmon's government has cracked down on dissent and maintained tight control over the media, drawing harsh criticism from international rights groups. Few foreign bodies have considered the results of Tajik elections free and fair.

Symbolically, Wednesday's election coincides with Constitution Day, celebrated as a national holiday in Tajikistan. Polls close at 8 p.m., with the first official results expected early on Thursday.

mkg/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)