Recent elections to the lower chamber of a new parliament in Tajikistan were marred by flagrant fraud and manipulation of the vote.
The presidential People's Democratic Party (PDP) has thus far received thirty of the sixty-three seats in the lower chamber. Thirteen have gone to the Communist Party, two to the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and fifteen to independent candidates. The independent candidates, moreover, are almost without exception widely acknowledged to be solidly pro-government.
A joint United Nations-Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission statement noted that the February 27 elections failed to meet minimum democratic standards. But the government intensified its efforts to eliminate candidates in the March 12 run-offs who were perceived as not supportive of the president or as solid alternatives to the ruling party. Many of these candidates were either de-registered, threatened, or forced by authorities to withdraw their candidacy.
"The extensive and egregious violations committed during the campaign and on election day immediately called into question the integrity of the vote," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "But identical violations committed during the second round show that the Rakhmonov government has used every means possible to rig the vote and deliberately limit any real pluralism."
In a letter to President Emomali Rakhmonov, Human Rights Watch documented obstruction of political parties; a wholly arbitrary candidate registration process and intimidation of independent candidates; numerous and grave irregularities in the voting procedure; state interference in the electoral process; and flagrantly biased coverage by the state media.
"We said the November 1999 presidential elections were a farce because they were a rubber stamp for just one candidate," said Ms. Cartner. "Sadly, many elements of this election are just as absurd. Despite its promises to the contrary, the government has once again demonstrated blatant bad faith in creating the conditions for a free and fair vote."
The ballot marked the last major step of the transitional period outlined in the June 1997 peace agreement that ended Tajikistan's five-year civil war. The government has made repeated promises to ensure free and fair conditions for the parliamentary ballot after the November 1999 presidential elections, which were criticized by the international community for severe restrictions on freedom of association and expression. In those elections, President Rakhmonov was reelected for a seven-year term.
Below is a copy of HRW's letter to President Rakhmonov.
March 29, 2000
President Emomali Rakhmonov
Republic of Tajikistan
via facsimile: (73772)215110
Dear President Rakhmonov:
We write to express our great disappointment at the conditions surrounding the parliamentary elections in Tajikistan, both in the February 27 vote and the March 12 run-off. Despite repeated promises by your government to ensure democratic conditions further to the deeply flawed November 1999 presidential elections, these elections once again resulted in an indisputable perversion of the democratic process.
Authorities and the state media have in general presented the elections as a successful democratic exercise. However, a joint United Nations-Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission, while commending the "pluralistic" nature of the elections, noted that they failed to meet minimum international standards. The severity and extent of the violations documented by both the joint observer mission and Human Rights Watch show clearly that—as during the presidential campaign—the authorities made a concerted effort to manipulate the parliamentary ballot and limit true pluralism.
That your government once again demonstrated blatant bad faith in creating the conditions for a fair and open vote is of all the more concern to us given that the elections took place under the observance of the U.N. and the OSCE, two organizations mandated to play central roles in the implementation of the June 1997 peace accord. Further, despite a statement on violations provided by the joint observer mission that called into question the integrity of the vote, all of the violations noted by the observer mission on election day reoccurred and in many cases intensified during the March 12 run-off ballot. We are deeply alarmed by what appears to be your government's intention to flaunt criticism by the international community and openly shirk commitments under international law.
We take this opportunity to point out some of the most flagrant violations that occurred. These include obstruction of the work of political parties, a wholly arbitrary candidate registration process and intimidation of independent candidates, numerous and grave irregularities in the voting procedure, state interference in the electoral process, and flagrantly biased coverage by the state media.
Six parties were permitted to participate in the elections: the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), the Communist Party (CP), the Socialist Party, the Democratic. Party (Almaty platform), the Adolatkhoh (Justice) Party and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). But numerous and grave violations, as described in this letter, obstructed the activities of other opposition parties and severely limited this ostensible pluralism.
Of sixty-three seats in the lower chamber of parliament, the PDP gained thirty, the CP thirteen, and the IRP two. In addition, the majority of independent candidates are either PDP members or widely acknowledged to be solidly pro-government. Claiming vote-rigging, extremely high turnout figures and obstruction of party members' activities during the vote, as detailed further on in this letter, several parties have called for parts of the ballot to be invalidated. The IRP has called for the party list vote to be invalidated, the Communist Party has called for a vote recount in fifteen districts, and the Democratic Party, which did not attain the 5 percent threshold necessary to secure a seat, for repeat elections in seven districts.
Further, those parties suspended, deregistered, or prevented from registering in the run-up to the November presidential elections, remained excluded from the parliamentary elections. These parties are among those that had formed the Consultative Council of Political Parties, and had criticized amendments to the constitution, through which the president's term was extended from five to seven years and which allows for 25 percent of the upper chamber of parliament to be directly appointed by the president and 75 percent by local parliaments, which are already led by presidential appointees.
To date, the Agrarian Party is still banned, the registration of the Party of Justice and Progress remains annulled, and the National Movement Party of Tajikistan continues to be denied registration. The Democratic Party (Teheran Platform) was suddenly suspended by the Supreme Court in early December 1999 on charges of illegal membership lists, despite the fact that its registration had previously been approved in March 1999 and that it had been allowed to participate in the presidential elections. Junbish, the newspaper that published the views of the opposition Consultative Council and other opposition parties, was closed down following threats and harassment from authorities just prior to the presidential elections; it has not reopened.
A wholly arbitrary application of registration rules, threats, and intimidation conducted mainly against those perceived to be unsupportive of the presidential party or considered weighty alternatives to pro-presidential candidates, also contrasts starkly against the supposedly pluralistic nature of the process. Moreover, despite the fact that the presidential party gained a clear majority during the first round of voting on February 27, efforts to eliminate all those perceived to be serious competitors intensified in the lead-up to and during the second round of voting on March 12. Violations and intimidation of opposition candidates were particularly conspicuous in districts where during the first round they had gained more votes than the pro-government candidate.
According to the electoral law, independent candidates were to submit at least 500 signatures in support of their nomination; if 3 percent of the total number submitted was deemed invalid, registration was refused. Yet the law neglected to specify clearly whether the 3 percent applied to the minimum 500 signatures or to the entire signature list, which in many cases exceeded by two or three times the 500-signature minimum. Some candidates told Human Rights Watch that electoral commissions required them to submit only 500 signatures, while others related that they were allowed up to several thousand.
Prior to election day on February 27, some fifty independent candidates were denied registration in what international electoral law experts termed a grossly selective registration process. The flaws in the registration process were particularly flagrant in Dushanbe, where two thirds of all independent candidates failed to gain registration. Several of these were leaders of political parties prevented from contesting the presidential elections, or who have links to these parties, while others were those perceived to be unsupportive of the presidential party or considered weighty alternatives to pro-presidential candidates.
Rahmatullo Zoirov, chairman of the de-registered Party of Justice and Progress, was arbitrarily denied registration on the basis that 3 percent of the first 500 signatures on his 673-strong signature list were invalid. Despite his allegations that the district electoral commission had violated its own rules in dealing with his application, and despite an appeal to the Supreme Court, Zoirov was not registered. He told Human Rights Watch that on February 22 the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, stating "we are turning down your application." When Zoirov requested a written reason, he was told that it would be delivered in three days, almost on the eve of the vote. According to Zoirov, "I've fallen out of favor with the government. They know I'm a genuine alternative candidate—700 members of my party reside in my voting district—that's why they don't want me registered." Following his participation in the summer of 1999 in the Consultative Council of Political Parties, Zoirov told Human Rights Watch how he suffered professional harassment at the hands of university officials. In September 1999, the Supreme Court annulled the registration of his party, charging that it had technically violated membership rules. Zoirov's attempts to re-register the party prior to presidential elections were unsuccessful.
Hikmatullo Nasriddinov, chairman of the banned Agrarian Party, told Human Rights Watch that he was refused permission by district and central electoral authorities to submit his registration documents, and that he had not received formal written notification of his registration denial from these authorities.
Both Sattor Asrorov and Saifiddin Turaev, representatives of the Justice Party (Turaev a former presidential candidate) were denied registration as single-mandate candidates; Asrorov told Human Rights Watch that he had not received formal written notification of his registration denial, as required by law. Although both candidates were allowed to run on the Justice Party ballot, the party failed to gain the required 5 percent threshold. Afzali Azam, chairman of the suspended Democratic Party (Teheran Platform), related that Rustam Faiziev, chairman of the Leninabad branch of the party, had been told by district electoral commission officials that he would not receive registration because he was a member of a party led by Azam. Human Rights Watch also received testimony regarding five independent women candidates in Dushanbe who were denied registration following alleged harassment and intimidation by electoral authorities.
In Faizobod, Asht and Vakhsh districts, PDP candidates won the run-off elections following intimidation and suspicious deregistration of opposition candidates. Muhiddin Kabirov, a member of the IRP running as an independent candidate in Faizobod, won more votes in the first round than Saidmurod Tagoev, the chairman of the Faizobod hukumat (local administration), but emerged as the loser during the run-off elections. He told Human Rights Watch that he had on at least two occasions received direct threats from a member of the presidential apparatus, who warned him "not to play with fire" and threatened him to withdraw his candidacy, although "if you win we'll just cancel the elections; nonetheless, we don't need to take that step because it's all been pre-determined." Kabirov also recounted how a member of the presidential apparatus had torn down his elections posters in Kofarnihon, where they were hanging alongside those of his opponent, and how he had been forced to move his campaign headquarters prior to the run-offs due to harassment from local authorities.
In Asht, Communist Party candidate Nodir Solijonov was suddenly de-registered on March 7, on grounds that his supporters had conducted illegal campaigning on election day and that the Constitution had been violated through the promotion of communist ideology and communist values in his campaign. Communist Party officials told Human Rights Watch, however, that no complaints regarding illegal campaigning or constitutional violations had been made by electoral authorities on or prior to February 27. His deregistration left the PDP candidate Ibrogim Usmonov as the sole candidate on March 12.
International observers also stated that the Communist Party candidate in Vakhsh, Sharif Gafurov, had undergone intense pressure from authorities to withdraw his candicacy before the March 12 run-off elections. Gafurov told Human Rights Watch on February 17, prior to the first round of voting, that policemen in Kurgan-Teppa had threatened drivers transporting Communist Party supporters to rallies and that he had been forced to relocate his campaign headquarters following threats from authorities. Gafurov lost to PDP member and chairman of the Vakhsh hukumat, Asomuddin Saidov.
In the districts of Mastcho, Yovon and Vose, the run-off race was limited to one candidate following the withdrawal of those reputedly not favored by the local administration. International observers stated that they had received information that in all three of these districts the candidates who withdrew had suffered harassment and intimidation from local authorities.
Serious irregularities in the voting procedure, including massive proxy voting, falsification of protocols, a heavy armed presence and intimidation by authorities, mathematical inconsistencies and errors in the tabulation of the vote, and overinflated voter turnout figures, call into serious question the legitimacy of the February 27 vote. Once again, all of these irregularities re-occurred and in some cases intensified during the March 12 run-off elections.
The joint U.N.-OSCE observer mission noted that proxy voting was unacceptably high in close to 70 percent of the precincts observed on February 27. Human Rights Watch witnessed proxy voting in Kofarnihon and in several districts of Dushanbe on that day. In approximately half of the polling stations visited, polling station commission members sitting next to the ballot boxes asked each voter how many votes they were casting. International observers recounted that when they entered some polling stations, commission chairmen instantly warned commission members not to allow voters to employ proxy voting; the observers were later informed that this order was lifted after their departure from the polling station. International observers also noted that proxy voting during the second round was in some cases massive and that commission members were once again instructed not to allow proxy voting while international observers were present, but to resume following their departure.
As the joint observer mission noted, a startingly high number of protocols were signed in pencil at the local polling station, but retranscribed in pen en route to the district or central electoral commissions. In Dushanbe alone, thirty-one out of thirty-two protocols observed were completed in pencil at the polling stations. International observers said that this pattern was repeated during the second round in at least the Leninskii and Vakhsh raions; in the latter, an observer claimed that the pencil-written results were entirely changed in their presence at the district electoral commission.
A heavy armed presence inside and close to polling stations in several districts contributed to an atmosphere of tension and intimidation. In Faizobod on March 12, Human Rights Watch witnessed a minimum of two to three armed policemen in uniform and civilian dress standing inside the entrance of each polling station, while others sat directly adjacent to the ballot box or stood outside the entrance to the polling station and further away in the street. Two Muhiddin Kabirov observers present in polling stations visited by a Human Rights Watch representative in Faizobod related that when the Human Rights Watch representative entered the polling station, the policemen left their posts beside the voting booths where they were "counseling" voters, only to resume their positions once the representative left the polling station. International observers confirmed a similar armed presence in the districts of Vakhsh and Leninskii.
Widespread and recurrent discrepancies, ranging from differences between the number of ballots issued and the number of persons who voted, to flagrant differences between protocols copied by international observers and final tabulation results, also cast serious doubt on the integrity of the results. Many international and political party observers recounted that during the count, for example, the IRP received a certain number of votes, but when the actual protocols were signed, they received far fewer votes than originally announced, or, in some cases, no votes at all. On numerous occasions, on both February 27 and March 12, political party or independent candidate observers were denied permission to observe the count, and in some cases they were excluded from polling stations altogether.
The joint observation team noted that the disproportionately high voter turnout figure of 87 percent announced by the Central Electoral Commission two hours before the close of the polling stations on February 27 "cast serious doubt over the integrity of the voting results"; this figure, and the official final figure of 92 percent are at serious odds with the flow of voters observed by Human Rights Watch and international observers on election day, and with the high number of Tajik citizens registered on voters' lists but living outside the country.
State Interference in the Election Process
The electoral campaign and the February 27 vote pointed to an intrusive and manipulative role led by hukumat representatives. During run-off elections on March 12, international observers related that the presence of hukumat representatives and other unauthorized persons in polling stations exceeded even that observed on election day.
In Faizobod on March 12, hukumat representatives were present in every single polling station visited by Human Rights Watch, many without appropriate accreditation. On at least one occasion hukumat representatives followed the Human Rights Watch representative between polling stations, and in other instances, the unauthorized hukumat representative refused to leave the representative's side while the representative conducted conversations with polling station commission chairmen or other commission members. The distinction between the role of the hukumat representatives and the polling station commission members was blurred to the extent that on several occasions the hukumat representatives responded to Human Rights Watch's requests for information and instructed commission members, for example, to avoid proxy voting or to tabulate the number of votes thus far gathered. One hukumat representative stated, "I'm here to ensure that equal conditions are in place for both candidates."
According to international observers and members of opposition political parties, in those polling stations where candidates not sympathetic to the government or presidential party gained more votes than the pro-government candidate on election day, polling station commission members were systematically replaced prior to the run-off elections. Opposition candidate Muhiddin Kabirov confirmed this trend in Faizobod, while other international observers related that they had gathered identical information in Vakhsh and Muminobod. Observers also recounted that in Isfara, the district electoral commission chairman was fired just before March 12, while local authorities were warned that they would be dismissed "if the right candidate were not to win."
A member of the Frunze district electoral commission of Dushanbe asserted that members of polling station commissions in the district had been instructed by highly-placed authorities to do away altogether with ballots cast in favor of the IRP. "We were told to throw out IRP ballots during the count," the commission member told Human Rights Watch. "However, we were also told not to do it in front of the international observers, but rather to wait until they had gone, and throw them out then." The father of a member of a polling station commission in the Central District in Dushanbe related that his daughter, herself a polling station commission member, had told him that the commission members filled in unused ballots in favor of the PDP.
Some access to state media was granted to political parties and independent candidates during the parliamentary electoral campaign, a small step forward for Tajikistan's all-controlling state media. Yet, despite provisions in the electoral law guaranteeing equal and ample coverage to all, state media, particularly state television, devoted an overwhelming portion of coverage to the presidential party and pro-presidential candidates. Research carried out by Human Rights Watch and an in-depth international study of coverage provided by Dushanbe-based government and private newspapers and the state television from the beginning of February until three to four days before the February 27 election shows that almost all of the newspapers accorded predominant coverage to the presidential party, the president himself, and current government figures and policy. In addition, according to the study, state television in its news and editorial coverage neglected to cover the campaign. Candidate debates that were to have been broadcast on state television did not occur.
We respectfully call on the Tajik government to:
as a matter of urgent priority, and taking into account recommendations provided by the joint U.N.-OSCE observer mission, ensure that repeat single-mandate constituency elections in Khojimaston, Kofarnihon and Khorog to be held on April 23 and afterward meet the standards for free and fair elections;
as a matter of priority, make amendments to the electoral law as recommended by international organizations including the U.N., the OSCE and the International Foundation for Elections Systems (IFES), in the September 1999 Memorandum of Understanding signed by the government and the OSCE, and prior to the adoption of the law and during the course of the parliamentary ballot;
ensure that the review process of complaints submitted to electoral commissions and courts by political parties and independent candidates is swift and transparent, and conducted in accordance with the law;
and, implement all recommendations contained in the final OSCE-Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) report to be issued within a month following the completion of the electoral process.
Thank you for your attention to these concerns. We look forward to your reply.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch