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Publish Date: 3/13/2005

Election official studies abroad
Tajikistan observer values U.S. system

LONGMONT — After supervising the recent election in Tajikistan, making sense of Boulder County’s November election mess should be relatively easy for Richard Lyons.

The Longmont resident, who is heading the county’s Election Review Committee, spent 10 days in late February working as a volunteer observer in Tajikistan during that country’s lower parliamentary election. Lyons and 150 other volunteers with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — an international human rights group of which the United States is a member — inspected polling places for instances of voter fraud.

Observers had to pick their battles at times.

“We’re working for things like universal suffrage and transparency,” he said Monday night. “We found some cultural violations — for instance, a husband and wife going into the polling booth together. That’s a cultural thing. It’s common for a husband to tell his wife how to vote.”

Tajikistan is literally half a world away. Lyons flew across 12 time zones on three different planes to reach the country, which lies in a mountainous corner of east Asia between Afghanistan, Russia and China. He booked the trip with just three weeks’ notice after being chosen at random from a pool of international volunteers. Previously, he oversaw two Serbian elections.

Snapshots from Lyons’ digital camera show markets with bright garments and bowls of nuts and spiced carrots for sale throughout Tajikistan. Statues of Lenin and Russian Orthodox churches are scattered throughout the cities.

While more than 90 percent of the country practices Islam, Lyons saw none of the fanaticism that Americans might associate with some branches of Islam in the Middle East.

“They’re all Islamic, but they’re not very religious. They drink and smoke,” he said. “It’s the only country in the world where the Islamic fundamentalists who were fighting for control laid down their guns and became a political party.”

Lyons and the other volunteers did most of their sightseeing on the fly. They spent hours learning about the country’s recent history, politics and election laws in preparation for the Feb. 27 election.

After the Soviet Union dissolved, Tajikistan endured a five-year civil war that ended in 1997. President Emomali Rakhmonov came to power after the war, and his National Democratic Party dominates the landscape.

This year, Rakhmonov allowed for some improvements for the parliamentary election. Six political parties fielded candidates, compared with two parties in previous elections. Each party was given an allotment of time on television.

Those advancements won praise from the branch of OSCE that supervised the election, according to the organization’s election analysis.

But at the same time, Rakhmonov also created penalties for publicly criticizing him and had his photo placed prominently at polling places around the country.

On Election Day, Lyons and German volunteer Silke Tittle donned blue and white armbands designating them as international observers and dropped in on polling locations at random.

After a relatively uneventful 14 hours of observing, Lyons said he and Tittle stumbled onto potential fraud when the polls shut down at 8 p.m.

Employees at one polling location hand-counted their ballots and prepared to turn them in. But the ballots were not taken to a central location to be recorded, as required by law. Instead, they were sent to government offices in a nearby city, where Rakhmonov’s government would presumably be able to alter the results in its favor.

That explained the ho-hum day of observing, Lyons said.

“Our (election officials) didn’t need to cheat. They were waiting for the end of the day,” he said.

Ultimately, the president’s party cleaned up in the election, winning 80 percent of the 63 seats up for grabs in the parliament.

As the head of Boulder County’s Election Review Committee, Lyons said looking at ragtag elections in foreign countries makes him appreciate how sophisticated the United States’ election process is, despite all its faults.

“It’s a tribute to our society that we trust volunteer election judges who do this one day a year,” he said.

He hopes to share some of what he learned in Tajikistan with Boulder County clerk Linda Salas and plans to pass on OSCE’s election manual to her.

While much of the scrutiny of Boulder County’s sloppy November election has focused on ballot printing problems and software that could not read the ballots properly, Lyons said OSCE’s election judge training guidelines may be most useful to local officials.

Lyons said he would be willing to return to Tajikistan for next year’s presidential contest. His chances may be slim, however, because observers are chosen randomly from an international pool of thousands and given just a few weeks’ notice before an election.

Brad Turner can be reached at 720-494-5420, or by e-mail at

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