DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Voters in Tajikistan cast ballots Wednesday in a presidential election all but certain to extend the incumbent's more than 20-year rule after officials barred the only real opposition candidate from the race.
President Emomali Rakhmon, 61, is running for his fourth term in the strategically important Central Asian nation neighboring Afghanistan and China. The Sunni Muslim country of 8 million is one of the poorest among the ex-Soviet nations. It depends on the remittances of the more than 1 million Tajiks working in Russia to make up nearly one-half of the nation's GDP.
For many years, Rakhmon's government has cracked down on dissent and maintained tight control over the media, drawing harsh criticism from international rights groups.
He faces virtually no competition in this vote. Rights activist Oinihol Bobonazarova was denied registration on the grounds she failed to collect the signatures of 5 percent of the nation's voters. She insisted she had done so, but the Central Election Commission claimed she fell short because the number of eligible voters had changed.
The remaining five presidential challengers have campaigned together and have even praised Rakhmon.
Tajik authorities have sought to exploit public fears of a replay of a bloody civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"(The authorities) tried to create an impression that if people support (me), it could lead to a war and bloodshed as in the 1990s," Bobonazarova said.
Rakhmon, a state farm director during Soviet times, took the helm during the war that erupted in 1992. Russia backed Rakhmon's faction against a coalition of Islamists, nationalists and democratic groups.
A 1997 peace deal gave the opposition a significant number of government posts, but Rakhmon later consolidated his power, gradually squeezing the opposition members out. There were clashes between government troops and militants in 2010 and 2012, but the government has moved quickly to uproot its foes and cement control.
"Rakhmon's positions are very strong," said Nurali Davlat, an independent analyst. "The opposition has failed to consolidate."
Tajikistan has allowed U.N. coalition troops and cargo to travel from Afghanistan over its territory, although its ex-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have played a far greater role.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.