On November 6th there will be a presidential poll in Tajikistan. When any election campaign in Central Asia begins it is worth asking the ‘so what?’ question.
Democratic elections are primarily about the making of a popular choice and the articulation of societal demands to governments. ‘Brezhnev elections’ (late-Soviet Union polls of multiple candidates but only one party) were about neither of these things. It goes without saying that contemporary elections in Tajikistan do not serve the basic functions of popular sovereignty either but that is not to say that they do not have certain political purposes, both domestically and internationally.
So, what is the point of the elections? As I have argued in print, the key to understanding Tajik elections is to stop thinking about them as national institutions and start conceiving them as global, national and local performances. Everyone plays their part given the political space and roles they have in a political system which every now and again masquerades as democratic to multiple audiences.
Therefore, we have ‘opposition’ which provides a selection of candidates whilst Oinhol Bobonazarova, the only real figure that may question the President’s priorities (if only modestly) is unable to collect the 210,000 required signatures to stand. We have a ‘campaign’ which will be dominated by one man. We have local polling station and electoral district heads which will perform to their peers by counting the votes for the President and quashing dissent. And we have a government which appears to function.
This is politics in the modern semi-authoritarian state whose elections take place on a global stage. 750 elections observers estimated to arrive in Tajikistan from various organizations including the OSCE, CIS and SCO. The OSCE will uncover procedural irregularities. The CIS will praise the procedural success. They will all connive in the pretense that something meaningful is going on, that Tajikistan has a (partially) functioning political system, that these formal institutions actually matter for who gets power.
Seasoned observers of Tajik politics will meanwhile try and avoid the temptation to look ‘behind’ all this at what is really happening. On November 6th the performance is the point.