DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (AP) — It's an election in name only: even the challengers to Tajikistan's autocratic president have praised him and the only real opposition candidate has been barred from the race in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation.
Emomali Rakhmon, 61, who has led the mountainous, Sunni Muslim nation neighboring Afghanistan and China for more than two decades, is all but certain to win a fourth presidential term in Wednesday's vote. He polled 79 percent in the previous election seven years ago. Western monitors criticized it as lacking any genuine competition.
Here's a look at the background to the vote in the small but strategically important Central Asian nation.
THE PAINFUL PAST
Rakhmon took the helm in 1992 as Tajikistan plunged into an all-out internal conflict following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia backed his faction against a loose coalition of Islamists, nationalist and democratic groups.
The war, fueled by longtime clan and regional rivalries, killed tens of thousands and led to the collapse of the nation's economy and vital infrastructure.
Russia deployed its troops to monitor a cease-fire and helped broker a 1997 peace deal.
While the Tajik economy, which depends on aluminum and cotton, has gradually recovered to its Soviet-era level and has been growing over the past few years, the country remains one of the poorest nations in the former Soviet Union.
Of Tajikistan's 8 million people, about 1 million work abroad, most of them in Russia, and their remittances account for almost half of the country's GDP.
Russia has used deportations of Tajik migrants and threats to tighten entry rules to pressure Tajikistan on policy issues, including a recent deal extending the lease of a Russian military base until 2042.
Russia has about 5,000 troops in Tajikistan, and as well as the main base has a Soviet-built space tracking facility high in the Pamir Mountains that is capable of monitoring satellites in high orbit.
Along with five other ex-Soviet nations, Tajikistan is part of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization.
SUPPLIES BOUND FOR AFGHANISTAN
Tajikistan has provided its territory and air bases for the transit of coalition troops and cargo to and from Afghanistan, although its ex-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have played a far greater role.
THE RISE OF AUTOCRACY
A peace deal that ended the civil war gave the opposition a number of senior government posts, but Rakhmon later consolidated his power, gradually squeezing the opposition members out of the government and methodically tightening controls over media, political parties and religious groups. Rakhmon's government controls all television networks and most other media.
The nation's parliament has been dominated by Rakhmonov's loyalists. The top opposition group, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, and other government critics have faced pressure and intimidation.
Clashes between government troops and militants in 2010 and 2012 raised concerns about a possible rise of instability, but the government moved quickly to uproot its foes and cement control.
A VOTE WITHOUT CHALLENGE
In an apparent attempt to prevent any challenge to Rakhmon, election officials have barred the only real opposition candidate from the race.
Rights activist Oinihol Bobonazarova was denied registration on the grounds she failed to collect the signatures of 5 percent of the nation's eligible voters. She insisted she had done that, but the Central Election Commission claimed that she fell short because the number of eligible voters had changed.
Bobonazarova said that she faced official intimidation and pressure as she tried to launch her campaign: "It looked as if I were running not against Rakhmon, but the entire state structure."
The other five candidates all have praised Rakhmon.
Tight controls over the media and the political scene have contributed to widespread voter apathy.
"They say there are some other candidates, but we have been told to vote for Emomali Rakhmon," said Abdurakhim Razokov, a resident of the city of Kulyab.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.