Tajiks voted Monday in the Central Asian nation's second presidential election since a civil war in the 1990s, with incumbent Emomali Rakhmonov widely expected to win amid doubts about the fairness of the poll.
Some 3.2 million people were eligible to cast ballots across the impoverished ex-Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan.
After voting at a Dushanbe polling station with two of his nine children, Rakhmonov rebuffed concerns voiced by opposition groups and monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the vote would not be transparent or democratic.
He said Tajikistan had to learn how to conduct fair elections.
"More than 98 per cent of those living in our country are Muslim. We have a completely different culture," he told reporters.
"To say this election 100 per cent meets (European) standards, this is absolutely incorrect.
Still, over the past 15 years, there has been some result, compared with previous elections," he said.
International observers declared the 2003 parliamentary elections neither free nor fair, along with a series of constitutional changes that were enacted that could result in Rakhmonov staying in office until 2020.
The three most-established opposition parties are either boycotting the vote or refused to field candidates, accusing authorities of limiting access to the media and putting up artificial obstacles to campaigning.
They include the Islamic Renaissance Party, Central Asia's only legal Islamic political party.
The Central Election Commission said as of 8 am local time that 19.4 per cent eligible voters nationwide had voted.
Support for Rakhmonov, who is standing for another seven-year term, is undeniable.
For many, what's most important is that the poor, mountain nation is stable now in the wake of the 1992-1997 war that pitted Islamic forces against the Moscow-backed government, killed more than 30,000 people and displaced nearly 1 million.
Tajiks "may be poor but it's still better than it was in the war," Mukri Georgadze, a 48-year-old Georgian wine seller and former journalist, said ahead of the vote. "Stable poverty is better than war."
More than a dozen polling stations visited by Associated Press reporters prior to the vote had small posters of Rakhmonov and the other four candidates clustered together on the walls.
However, many also had oversized posters exclusively of Rakhmonov, placed prominently in the stations, extolling his accomplishments.
Few campaign posters could be seen in Dushanbe and surrounding areas. In many towns outside of the capital, patriotic and populist slogans attributed to Rakhmonov hung, one after another, over the main roads.
On the street outside one Dushanbe polling station, loudspeakers blared the famous overture to the opera "Carmen," in between short history lessons about Rakhmonov's accomplishments in the 1990s.
"Rakhmonov's building tunnels, fixing roads. I see Dushanbe growing before my very eyes.
There's no one else to vote for," Sulkh Nadirov, a 44-year-old taxi driver, said. "Look what's happened in Afghanistan. While they're still fighting, we have peace, stability."
Far from even challenging and criticizing the incumbent, the four other contenders have actually praised Rakhmonov and often appear at campaign events or televised appearances together.
"In this elections, there's one winner, Rakhmonov, and one loser, the Tajik people," said Rakhmadturo Zohirov, leader of the Social-Democratic Party, which is boycotting the vote.