DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — Tajikistan held a presidential election Wednesday that is all but certain to extend the nearly 21-year rule of the incumbent, who only faced token competition in the race.
President Emomali Rakhmon, 61, ran for his fourth term in the strategically important Central Asian nation neighboring Afghanistan and China. More than 80 percent of the country's eligible voters cast ballots by the time polls closed. Preliminary results of the vote are expected Thursday.
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 for nearly 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 faced 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.
In the capital, Dushanbe, Khodicha Ismailova said she cast her ballot for Rakhmon: "I don't know his program, but we all know him, he has brought us independence and peace," she said.
"Who else should I vote for?" said Akmal Latipov, who also voted for the incumbent.
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 coalition troops and cargo to travel to and from Afghanistan over its territory, although its ex-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have played a far greater role.
Tajikistan has hosted a Russian military base and recently allowed Moscow to extend its lease until 2042. Along with five other ex-Soviet nations, Tajikistan is part of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.