Tajik President Rakhmon set to win another term

Giant billboards depicting President iEmomali Rakhmon in Dushanbe. Photo: 3 November 2013 Opponents accuse President Emomali Rakhmon of developing a personality cult

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Voters in Tajikistan have cast their ballots, with incumbent President Emomali Rakhmon widely expected to win a new seven-year term.

Mr Rakhmon, 61, faces five challengers, but the only genuine opposition candidate was barred from standing.

The authoritarian leader has been in office for more than 20 years in the impoverished former Soviet republic.

The EU and the US have not recognised a single election in the Central Asian country as free and fair.

Security challenges

Polls across the mountainous country were due to open at 01:00 GMT and close at 15:00 GMT.

Central Asia is widely known for its obscure "Stans" - to be found at the bottom of most democracy rankings. Tajikistan is not the worst in the region but presidential elections there are hardly any different from its neighbours.

For Emomali Rakhmon, these will be his fourth elections and there is little doubt he will win again. He is competing against virtually unknown politicians and the only credible opposition candidate has criticised what she called artificial obstacles and intimidation, which prevented her from running for the presidency.

However, analysts say the elections may bring some change, although not necessarily in the government or its policies. People's perceptions and attitudes towards the government could change if mass irregularities take place on voting day.

The international community will also be watching the elections closely. As part of the withdrawal campaign, Nato and the US will ship some of their equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, including Tajikistan.

Preliminary results are expected on Thursday. Tajikistan's official electoral commission has already declared the presidential election as valid.

The head of the electoral commission, Shermuhammad Shohiyon, told Tajik state television that 68% of registered voters had already cast their ballots by 14:00 local time (09:00 GMT) - easily surpassing the minimum 50% participation required to validate the vote.

Mr Rakhmon, who secured 79% of the vote in the 2006 election, did not campaign actively this time.

Instead, the president relied on extensive media coverage of his visits around the country, which his opponents say was heavily biased in his favour.

Election monitors complained when their bus turned up bearing a poster of the president on the windscreen. The bus company removed the poster.

The opposition accuses Mr Rakhmon - whose huge billboards are seen everywhere in the capital Dushanbe and other towns - of developing a personality cult. He denies the claim.

The five other presidential candidates have refrained from publicly criticising Mr Rakhmon.

Human rights activists Oynihol Bobonazarova - widely seen as the only genuine opposition candidate - was banned from the polls.

The electoral commission said earlier she had failed to collect the necessary 210,000 signatures of eligible voters to be officially registered.

Despite the expected easy victory, critics say Mr Rakhmon will face rising social tension in the country where some 50% of the population live in poverty.

Almost half of the nation's GDP is earned by more than one million Tajik migrants working abroad, especially in Russia,

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Analysts say Tajikistan could also face further security challenges from Islamist groups in neighbouring Afghanistan after the planned pullout of the US-led forces next year.

Tajikistan was devastated by the 1992-97 civil war between the Moscow-backed government and the Islamist-led opposition.

Up to 50,000 were killed before the conflict ended with a UN-brokered peace agreement.

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