Dushanbe, Tajikistan-Central Asian Tajikistan goes to the polls Sunday in a presidential election expected to make incumbent Emomali Rakhmon the longest-ruling strongman in the former Soviet space.

Few are anticipating any hiccups for Rakhmon as he closes in on three decades in power and looks to overtake Kazakhstan’s recently retired Nursultan Nazarbayev in the regional longevity stakes.

Authoritarian Rakhmon faces four other candidates, all of whom are viewed as token opponents, in his bid for a fresh seven-year term. Polling stations opened at 6 am local (0100 GMT) and will close at 8 pm (1500 GMT), with results expected the following morning.

Voters in the capital Dushanbe interviewed by AFP overwhelmingly stated their intention to cast their ballot for Rakhmon -- and struggled to name the other candidates. 

Student Abdukholik Faizov said that this was to be expected and predicted with a smile that “the one who always wins will win again.” “It is obvious! We are still waiting for free elections,” Faizov explained. 

While disputed votes in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and fellow former Soviet republic Belarus have triggered massive upheavals in those countries, similar developments appear unlikely in Tajikistan.

Rakhmon is portrayed by state media as bringing stability to the country following a civil war during the 1990s that pitted government forces against a diverse opposition including Islamist fighters. Constitutional changes passed in 2016 allowed the “Founder Of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation”, as Rakhmon is officially known, to run for office an unlimited number of times.

Rights groups have flagged an intensifying crackdown on opposition, media and civil society since the changes took effect. Saida Rakhimova, the director of a state kindergarten, said that she hoped that Rakhmon would continue to rule for a long time yet. “We believe him, we trust him,” she said. 

She said that the government should raise miserly salaries and pensions for educators and carers in the poorest of former Soviet republics. “Things are ever so difficult,” she told AFP.

‘Veneer of campaign’ 

Few would have guessed that former collective farm boss Rakhmon would stay the course when he was elevated in 1992 to the chairmanship of the national assembly -- a position equivalent to head of state -- as fighting between pro-government forces and the United Tajik Opposition raged.

He was elected president in 1994 after the position was re-established, and re-elected in 1999, 2006 and 2013.

None of the votes were endorsed by Western electoral observers. The candidates he faces exist “to give a veneer of campaign to what is otherwise a non-event,” said John Heathershaw, professor of international relations at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Heathershaw cited the example of candidate Abduhalim Ghafforov, now challenging Rakhmon for a third time.

“In 2006, he gained just over two percent, in 2013, just over one percent, so if he continues on that trajectory he will get very few votes this time,” Heathershaw joked.

A party that many view as the only real opposition force in the country -- the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan -- announced that it would boycott the vote not long after a date for the ballot was set.