updated 11/6/2006 10:01:41 PM ET 2006-11-07T03:01:41

Tajik leader Imomali Rakhmonov, all but sure to be re-elected on Monday, pre-empted Western criticism of his Central Asian state’s presidential election by saying it could not be expected to be fully democratic.

Opposition parties boycotted the vote, and one said it was “obviously illegal.” A group of Western observers said it had registered irregularities including cases of ballot stuffing, additional voter lists and identical signatures on ballot papers.

“The biggest impression is that turnout seems to be artificially high,” one Western observer told Reuters after monitoring a dozen stations.

Rakhmonov, 54, has been criticized by opponents for crushing civil rights, jailing dissidents and allowing only a token opposition. He won the last poll in 1999 with a Soviet style 96.4 percent.

The veteran leader said Tajikistan’s vision of development was different from the West’s.

“More than 99 percent of people in Tajikistan are Muslim. We have a completely different culture,” he told reporters and monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe after voting in the capital Dushanbe.

“You have to take that into account. It would be absolutely wrong to say that this election will be 100 percent in line with OSCE standards. ... We are developing but there are problems.”

Although there was no doubt Rakhmonov would win another seven-year term, the West was watching closely. Tajikistan is a strategic country sharing a long border with Afghanistan and is a close ally of the United States in its war on terrorism.

Preliminary results were due on Tuesday morning.

Turnout nearly 90 percent
Vote counting started at 3 p.m. GMT at polling stations across the mountainous state, from remote villages on Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan to grand Soviet buildings in Dushanbe. The central election commission said turnout was 88.5 percent.

Dushanbe seemed relaxed, with ethnically flavored pop tunes blaring from parks and thick smoke rising from street kebab stands. Many people seemed uninterested in the election.

Tajikistan, most of whose seven million people live in grinding poverty, has never held an election judged free and fair by Western monitors. Rakhmonov’s four election rivals were officials from state-friendly parties.

“This election is obviously illegal,” said Rakhmatillo Zoyirov, head of the Social Democratic party. “It will not bring any democratic change.”

The OSCE refused to monitor the last election but sent dozens of observers this time. It gives its verdict on Tuesday.

Western response may be muted
The West’s reaction to the vote might be subdued as Tajikistan has become a key element in U.S. and European efforts to stabilize Afghanistan since 2001, analysts say.

Leaders of former Soviet republics are sensitive to criticism of their elections after popular protests in Georgia and Ukraine brought new, pro-Western politicians to power.

“Do you think democracy is all about revolutions, blood, instability? You think this is democracy? No,” said Rakhmonov.

Rakhmonov does seem genuinely popular in Tajikistan, where many people welcome the relative stability since the end of a civil war in the 1990s that killed tens of thousands of people.

“I voted for Imomali Sharipovich (Rakhmonov),” said Faizali, a 63-year-old resident of Dushanbe wearing a traditional black-and-white skull cap. “He has done a lot for us. Voting for him means voting for peace.”

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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