By Roman Kozhevnikov and Dmitry Solovyov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - Tajikistan on Wednesday started voting in a presidential election in which incumbent Imomali Rakhmon is set to win a new seven-year term to lead the Central Asian country that faces security threats from neighboring Afghanistan.
The former head of a state farm, who has been in power since 1992, is running against five little-known, mainly loyal candidates who pose no threat. The only genuine opposition candidate was unable to run.
But critics say Rakhmon, 61, faces mounting social tension in the Muslim state where about half the 8 million population live in poverty. More than 1 million work abroad, sending money home to their families.
As polls opened at 6 a.m. (0100 GMT), voters streamed to polling stations in the centre of the capital Dushanbe. At least 20 people were lining up to cast their ballots at polling station No. 5 set up at a secondary school.
Young people voting for the first time in their life were given bunches of flowers. Tajik music blared on loudspeakers in various parts of the city.
"Our president is good, so we voted for him," said pensioner Zikiriyo Sharipov.
Housewife Nazira Karaboyeva said she had opted for stability under Rakhmon and "for everything to stay as good as it is right now".
"I voted for His Excellency, for prosperity and freedom," she added.
A turnout of at least 50 percent is required to make the election valid. Polls close at 8 p.m. (1500 GMT), and first official results are expected early on Thursday.
Despite wide support at home, Moscow-backed Rakhmon 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.
Rakhmon did not conduct an election campaign, relying on extensive media coverage of trips across the country where he was met by jubilant crowds reciting poetry glorifying him.
In Dushanbe, he looks down from huge billboards, and stickers of him are plastered across the windscreens of taxis and buses. The other five candidates are featured mainly on modest leaflets at bus stops.
By barring moderate opposition candidate Oynihol Bobonazarova for not getting enough signatures of support, secular authorities risked radicalizing opponents in a country where tens of thousands were killed in a 1992-1997 civil war.
Bobonazarova, a 65-year-old human rights activist, is backed by the Islamic Revival Party, Tajikistan's second-largest political force, and by the opposition Social Democratic Party.
Many of Rakhmon's opponents in the civil war won by his secular government are now in the Islamic Revival Party. But the opposition is weak and disparate, and there is official pressure on media and those accused of preaching radical Islam.
Bobonazarova said Rakhmon had developed a personality cult and people hid their true feelings.
"We have so many problems, and they (the people) keep singing odes in his honor. They extol him, and later on they say terrible things about him," she told Reuters before the vote.
She said activists collecting signatures of support for her had been summoned by prosecutors and intimidated by the secret service. Rakhmon's press service declined comment.
The West has not recognized a single election in Tajikistan to be free and fair.
Rakhmon, who has increased the number and length of his terms by revising the constitution through a referendum, won 79 percent of the vote in the previous election in 2006. His next term must be his last, according to the constitution.
Symbolically, Wednesday's election coincides with Constitution Day, celebrated as a national holiday in Tajikistan.
In October, Dushanbe ratified a deal with Moscow under which Russian soldiers will be deployed at a base in Tajikistan for three decades. In return, Tajik officials said, Rakhmon won a deal allowing some duty-free imports of oil products and agreement by Moscow not to get tougher on Tajik migrants.
Rakhmon has repeatedly voiced concerns that the spread of a militant form of Islam similar to that of Taliban in Afghanistan could shatter the fragile peace in his country.
The Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which unites six former Soviet republics, said in September that it would provide "additional collective assistance" to Tajikistan to guard its border with Afghanistan after the pullout of most U.S.-led combat troops in 2014.
Russian border guards used to patrol the Tajik frontier with Afghanistan but left in 2005.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mohammad Zargham)