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Tajikistan: Islamic Party's Leader Explains Strategy

By Darius Rajabian

Tajikistan's last presidential election, in 1999, featured entrenched incumbent Imomali Rakhmonov and a candidate from the country's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). With a new vote due in November and at least five potential challengers emerging to face President Rakhmonov, the powerful IRP has vowed to stay out of the race.

PRAGUE, October 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Forty-year-old Muhiddin Kabiri was selected to lead the IRP in September, after the death to cancer of longtime Chairman Said Abdullo Nuri. Unlike Nuri, who was well schooled in Islam, Kabiri is a university-educated expert in Oriental studies and not noted for his deep schooling in Islam.

Kabiri took the reins of the IRP just two months before Tajik voters go to the polls to elect a president. Questions immediately arose about possible presidential candidates from Central Asia's only registered Islamic party. But the IRP also faced speculation that it might be on the verge of a split -- with older, more traditional members going one direction and a younger group, led by Kabiri, going in another direction.

On September 25, the party leadership convened and decided not to field a candidate.

'Society Is Not Ready'

Kabiri told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that there were several reasons behind the IRP's decision. His reasons were essentially that it was the wrong time for an Islamic party to put forward a candidate, and that the mere presence of such a candidate could bring adverse attention to Tajikistan and its nearly 7 million residents.

Kabiri's assessment was echoed by the former spiritual leader of Tajikistan's Muslim community and a leading authority on Islam in Tajikistan, Hoja Akbar Turajonzoda.

"First, Tajik society is not ready for a person with a spiritual background to become head of government -- to be president," Turajonzoda said. "Second, the region is not ready to have an Islamist become president [in Tajikistan, and will not be] in the near future. Third, in Europe and Western countries -- Russia in particular -- they wouldn't allow or agree to [an Islamist head of state]. And ultimately, when a person, an Islamist, is trying to become head of state -- or even run [as a candidate] in elections -- this could aggravate the situation within the country. That's in the interests of neither the people nor the state."

During Tajikistan's civil war in the mid-1990s, Turajonzoda was second only to Chairman Nuri within the IRP. He received a state post as part of the peace deal and left the IRP just ahead of the 1999 presidential election. Turajonzoda says he now supports President Rakhmonov.

Party leader Kabiri says parliamentary voting in 2005 showed the IRP that its political opponents portray the IRP as wanting to take the country backward.

"In parliamentary elections, our opponents said the [IRP were] a group that pull the country back...[and] that all the country's problems start with the Islamic Renaissance Party," Kabiri says. "They said that all the progress made by democracy and secular government would be in jeopardy [in the event of] a victory by the Islamic Renaissance Party."

Democratic Bona Fides

Kabiri says there is a perception that the IRP lacks any democratic credentials. That view contributed to the decision not to field a candidate for president. Kabiri says he and his party will instead scrutinize how "secular" parties -- particularly those that have the word "democratic" in their party titles -- campaign and govern.

"We will give them a chance to show what they will do with this democracy -- how they will use it," Kabiri explains. "Will they be able to manage and protect democracy, or not? Since they claim that if the Islamic Renaissance Party won, Tajikistan would become a second Afghanistan."

But why not enter the race and exploit the opportunity to acquaint the public with the IRP's views?

Kabiri tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the answer lies in his party's prominence during its 15 years of existence. He suggests the recent transfer of leadership means the IRP is better off focusing on unity among members, rather than a potentially divisive race for the presidency.

"Perhaps other parties need elections more," Kabiri says. "The people already know us, and now we need more stability within the party."

Not A 'Boycott'

The party cited perceived shortcomings in the Tajik electoral system when it announced its decision not to field a presidential candidate. But at the same time, the party is participating on local election committees and has vowed not to discourage its supporters from going to the polls, as two other opposition groups have done:

"We're not using the word 'boycott,'" Kabiri says. "We will participate in the election process without [fielding] our own candidate. We will have representatives on district electoral commissions to monitor [the voting]. We leave Islamic Renaissance Party members free to vote for whomever they choose, or simply not to support anyone. That is their choice, and we have not issued any decision about that."

Kabiri declines to say whether he supports any of the existing candidates, saying to do so publicly could influence other party members. In fact, he says, he won't even be in the country when Tajik voters go to the polls on November 6.

Kabiri and his IRP appear convinced that -- for now, at least -- Tajikistan's overwhelmingly Muslim voters remain unprepared to elect an Islam-based party's candidate for president.

Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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