DUSHANBE Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmon has won a new seven-year term after his only serious rival was barred from running, but he faces a hard task ensuring stability in a volatile country that borders Afghanistan.
The Moscow-backed strongman leader, who has run the poorest former Soviet republic since 1992, keeps Tajikistan's small and disparate opposition in check and civil society is weak. But he must contend with rising social tensions in a Muslim nation where nearly half the 8 million population live in poverty.
Rakhmon received 83.1 percent of the vote in Wednesday's election after all ballots were counted, Central Election Commission Chairman (CEC) Shermukhammad Shokhiyon told a news briefing. Turnout at the election was 86.6 percent.
"The election of the president... was held in strict conformity with the law and in line with the principles of democracy, freely and transparently," Shokhiyon said.
Rakhmon, a 61-year-old former Soviet state farm head, ran against five little-known, mainly loyal candidates.
His only serious rival, 65-year-old rights activist Oynihol Bobonazarova, said her backers had been obstructed in trying to gather the 210,000 signatures needed to run.
A delegation of international observers said voters had lacked a genuine choice, while extensive coverage of Rakhmon's activities by state media had provided him with a significant advantage.
Rakhmon has overseen constitutional amendments that lengthened and increased the number of terms he can remain as president. The new seven-year term he has won must be his last and he has to step down in 2020, according to the constitution.
The West has not recognized a single election in Tajikistan as free and fair.
Bobonazarova, backed by the Islamic Revival Party, Tajikistan's second largest political force, and by the liberal Social Democrats, berated Rakhmon for a growing personality cult and crackdowns on independent media and religious freedoms.
Rakhmon's control of state media has helped foster an aura of reverence among Tajiks for a man they call "God's shadow".
"All of us, his fellow villagers, are proud of the leader given to us by God and respected by the whole world," said Musrat Negmatov, 67, who worked with Rakhmon in Soviet days in a local Communist Party organization. He was speaking in Rakhmon's native village of Dangara 100 km (60 miles) south of Dushanbe.
But Tajik political analyst Saimiddin Dustov called the vote "a travesty", adding: "Mr. Rakhmon has been given carte blanche to do what he pleases, as was always the case before."
Tajikistan, where tens of thousands of people were killed during a 1992-97 civil war in which Rakhmon's Moscow-backed secular government battled Islamist militants, is a very poor Central Asian country in a region riven by ethnic divisions.
Conflicts have occurred across the border in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan, courted by the West and Russia for its energy resources and strategic position, has suffered sporadic bombings and shootings that authorities blame on Islamist militants.
Inside Tajikistan, Rakhmon had to send troops to quell the riotous eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region last year after rebels killed a security official, defying the president's authority.
Many of Rakhmon's opponents in the civil war won by his secular government are now in the Islamic Revival Party.
By barring moderate opposition candidate Bobonazarova, Rakhmon risks radicalizing the opposition, analysts said.
"Rakhmon now has two options - either he musters up courage and launches reforms in society and structures of state power or he continues with his old policies, in which case he won't stay in power until 2020," Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, a senior member of the Islamic Revival Party, told Reuters.
Rakhmon has not named a potential successor. Speculation has focused on Rustam Imomali, the older of his two sons, but he will be only 33 when his father's term ends, while the constitution says presidential candidates must be at least 35.
Rakhmon, like other Central Asian leaders, could face security threats from Islamist militants in neighboring Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal of U.S.-led forces in 2014. Tajikistan also lies on a heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Gareth Jones)