Dushanbe: Voters in Tajikistan, the poorest state in the former USSR, were on Wednesday expected to hand President Emomali Rakhmon an easy victory for a fourth term at the helm of his Central Asian state bordering Afghanistan.
In a tale all too familiar for elections throughout the Muslim but vehemently secular ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, the five candidates standing against Rakhmon are virtual unknowns even inside the country, with next to no chance of victory.
The potentially most significant rival candidate, female rights lawyer Oinikhol Bobonazarova of the moderate opposition Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan was unable to stand after narrowly failing to muster the signatures required to register her candidacy.
Bobonazarova gathered only 202,000 of the 210,000 signatures required that equates to five percent of the electorate, a shortfall her party blamed on harassment from local authorities on its activists during the signature campaign.
Her party`s spokesman confirmed that the Islamic Revival Party would not be taking part in the polls and would give its estimate after election day.
Another main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party, said it was boycotting the elections due to "violations of the constitution, organised falsifications and a lack of democracy and transparency."
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which will be monitoring the polls, noted in its interim report that "there is no visible campaign by other candidates so far", while state media had "extensively and positively" covered the president`s trips around the country.
Polls opened at 0100 GMT and were due to remain open until 1500 GMT, with official results expected the next day. Some 4 million voters can vote in the polls.
Shadowed by the more than 7,000 metre high peaks of the Pamir mountains, Persian-speaking Tajikistan boasts a crucial strategic position, bordering China and Afghanistan, as well as ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Its importance could grow with the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan in 2014.