By Nazarali Pirnazarov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan's Russian-allied President Imomali Rakhmon looks sure to secure a fifth term in office in Sunday's election as his four competitors' campaigns admit they do not expect many votes.
However, the presidential poll may attract more attention this time after recent elections in two other ex-Soviet republics - Belarus and Kyrgyzstan - sparked protests, adding to a belt of instability around Russia.
Rakhmon, 68, has run the Persian-speaking nation of 9.5 million people since 1992, a period including a civil war. He has gradually strengthened his grip and a 2016 constitutional reform removed a limit on the number of terms he could serve.
Polling stations opened with the national anthem played through loudspeakers, followed by a selection of patriotic songs. Staff checked voters' temperature on entry and wore both face masks and shields.
At one polling station shown in a state television news report, staff could be seen wearing full hazmat suits. According to the central election commission, 44.6% of voters had already cast their ballots by noon.
Many in the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation expect Rakhmon, who has nine children, to push for his son Rustam Emomali to succeed him. Emomali is both mayor of the capital city, Dushanbe, and speaker of the upper house of parliament.
All four competitors are members of the docile lower house of parliament and have avoided criticising Rakhmon, whose official title is "Founder of Peace and National Unity - Leader of the Nation."
Though they say they are in the race to win, their campaign staff privately admit they have little chance of garnering any significant vote count.
The biggest remaining opposition force, the Social Democratic party, is boycotting the election in protest at laws which it says tilt the playing field to ensure the dominance of Rakhmon's People's Democratic Party.
Though Tajikistan's economy has been growing 6% or more for the last decade, the coronavirus pandemic has taken the edge off that, with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development predicting a 1.0% contraction this year, the first in 23 years.
Tajikistan has reported 10,180 COVID-19 cases with 79 deaths and chose not to introduce a hard lockdown like some neighbours.
In addition to hosting Russia's biggest military base abroad, Tajikistan has close economic ties with its former Soviet overlord as hundreds of thousands of Tajiks work in Russia to support families at home.
China is another major donor, investor and creditor of the mountainous Central Asian nation whose main resource is abundant water supply which can be used to generate cheap power.
Tajikistan signed a $3.9 billion contract with Italy's Salini Impregilo in 2016 to build the Rogun hydroelectric power plant featuring a 335-metre-high rockfill dam, the tallest in the world, on the Vakhsh River.
(Reporting by Nazarali Pirnazarov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean)