Voters cast their ballots yesterday in Tajikistan in parliamentary elections pitching a fledgling opposition against the powerful ruling party of President Emomali Rakhmonov.
Critics accuse Rakhmonov, who came to power during the ex-Soviet country's civil war of the 1990s, of stifling dissent. They say recent steps -- such as a referendum two years ago that gave Rakhmonov the right to stay in power until 2020 -- threaten the country's stability and hopes for democracy.
Six parties are contesting 63 seats in Parliament's lower house, with 41 lawmakers to be chosen through direct voting. The other 22 seats will be divided among parties that win at least 5 percent of the vote. Rakhmonov's National Democratic Party is widely expected to keep its majority.
His only real challenger is the Islamic Renaissance Party, the core of the civil war opposition and now Parliament's only opposition party, with just two seats. The other opposition parties have scant resources and few candidates.
One voter at the polling station, teacher Rohat Abdusamadova, 46, said she supported the ruling party because "life has been steadily improving recently."
President Rakhmonov said he "voted for peace, national accord and Tajikistan's democratic development." Yet in the past several months authorities have forced out of print several independent and opposition newspapers, and launched investigations of two opposition party leaders.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent 130 observers to monitor yesterday's poll, in which 3.1 million people were eligible to vote. Preliminary results are expected today.
The pre-election period has been marred by opposition allegations that authorities were harassing their members, limiting their access to state media, arbitrarily detaining campaign activists and threatening to halt development projects or aid to areas that vote for the opposition.
Commenting on opposition and international observers' criticism of the elections, Rakhmonov warned that it is "dangerous to force democracy."