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Opposition sidelined as Tajikistan votes in parliamentary polls

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Dushanbe (Tajikistan) (AFP)

Ex-Soviet republic Tajikistan on Sunday votes in parliamentary polls expected to be dominated by the ruling party of President Emomali Rakhmon, with only one genuinely critical party taking part and the former main opposition banned.

In a scenario familiar from the other former Soviet states of Central Asia -- with the exception of politically volatile Kyrgyzstan -- Rakhmon's People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan is expected to sweep the polls with almost no contest.

The elections will be the first in Tajikistan's post-Soviet history without the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a moderate faith-based party which was once the main opposition but was banned in 2015 and the target of a harsh crackdown ever since.

Other parties from the outgoing legislature which are competing -- the agrarian party, the party of economic reform, the socialist party, the communist party and the democratic party -- are all widely seen as proxies that endorse 67-year-old Rakhmon's nearly three-decade rule.

Only one identifiable opposition party will compete in Sunday's ballot -- the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, which has never entered parliament.

The People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan currently dominates the chamber, holding 51 seats out of 63.

- 'Pre-agreed limits' -

The last elections in 2015 marked a turning point for Tajikistan, a landlocked Muslim-majority country reliant on former overlord Russia for security and next-door China for loans and investment.

That year, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan failed to make parliament for the first time since the end of a five-year civil war that pitted Islamists, democrats and regional forces against troops loyal to Rakhmon, costing tens of thousands of lives.

A peace deal for the country was brokered in 1997, with ally Russia acting as a guarantor, and the opposition guaranteed a role in politics.

But within months of falling short of the parliamentary threshold, the party was deemed extremist and outlawed. Eleven members of its political council were jailed.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that the members were arrested "for their exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly," and demanded their release.

Since the party was outlawed, Rakhmon strengthened control over the country. In 2016, he oversaw a referendum that allowed him to rule indefinitely.

Some analysts tip his son, Rustam Emomali, currently serving as Mayor of Dushanbe, to succeed him in the near future.

Shokir Hakimov, the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan's deputy chairman, told AFP that its lack of seats is "not because we lack a base" but because of a "lack of political will, poor electoral legislations and falsifications."

The other small parties on the ballot, he said, are "artificially created political structures, which play by the rules of the nomenklatura and keep criticism to within pre-agreed limits."

The buildup to Sunday's vote saw well-known journalist and government critic Daler Sharipov jailed as part of a wave of over a hundred arrests that began at the end of last year.

Authorities have said the sweep is targeting the Muslim Brotherhood movement, another banned group.

- 'Who is it helping' -

In the capital Dushanbe, leaflets of candidates standing in single member districts are visible on bus stops, while giant banners advertising the election loom over throughfares.

In a market in central Dushanbe, a 39-year-old trader called Mansour said that he planned to vote, and hoped that his district candidate would tackle the "mindless increase in taxes."

"Ever year hundreds of small traders are forced to close their businesses at the markets, because taxes are pushed up," Mansour said.

"In February they increased them again. Who is it helping?"

Long regarded as the poorest country in the ex-Soviet Union, Tajikistan has seen its poverty rate decline over the last two decades to around 29 percent in 2017.

Hundreds of thousands of the 4.7 million electorate live and work in Russia, where polling stations will be set up at the country's embassy in Moscow and consulate in Saint Petersburg.

Polling stations open at 0100 GMT and close at 1500 GMT. Preliminary results are expected on Monday.

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