Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was returned to serve a second term in office on October 24. Preliminary results showed him winning 90% of the vote in what was a largely uncontested race. However, later official results gave the incumbent slightly over 80%.
Since succeeding Islam Karimov five years ago, Mirziyoyev has been hailed for opening up the Central Asian country, winding down the repressive regime of his predecessor and launching a radical and extensive reform programme. Voters interviewed by bne IntelliNews in Tashkent were unanimous in their support for the incumbent. They said their lives had improved noticeably during his first term.
The political system remains largely unreformed, but that doesn't seem to worry voters who are more interested in economic and other results than rights. Voters appreciate dynamic reforms that have brought some measure of visible prosperity after more than two decades of stagnation under the late Karimov.
“My vote is a secret and will be counted soon,” says a middle-aged teacher who identifies herself only as Anna. “But life today is much better than it was five years ago and it will only continue to get better,” she told this publication at one of the polling stations in Tashkent’s suburbs. “Today the teachers in Uzbekistan get paid more than the teachers in Kazakhstan.”
One of the main criticisms of the weekend’s vote has been the complete lack of any real opposition figures on the ballot. Those who might have provided some significant rivalry for Mirziyoyev have been excluded by administrative barriers. However, when asked if they thought that that was a problem, the question was lost on most voters interviewed by bne IntelliNews. Having lived their lives under a virtual dictatorship, most citizens of Uzbekistan find the ideas of democracy and voters’ rights largely alien concepts. They would be more relevant to a parliamentary election, but in the presidential race most voters had already made up their mind.
“No,” says another voter asked point-blank if she thought the lack of opposition candidates was a problem. “Why should it be? My life has become a lot easier. Things are now stable. The shops are full. You can exchange soum for dollars. I voted for the president of course. Who else should I vote for?” the lady, who didn't give her name, said. She was speaking in polling station 105 in a leafy residential suburb. The voting address was housed in a brand new school built by Alisher Usmanov, a Russian-based multibillionaire and the country’s richest scion.
Uzbekistan went to the polls on October 24 in its sixth ever election. It was also the first to be held since Mirziyoyev took the helm in 2016.
It was a given from the start that Mirziyoyev would win re-election. He is widely popular for the prosperity his administration has brought but at the same time, despite liberalising the economy and dismantling the soviet-era centralised control system that Karimov perpetuated following independence in 1991, there have been few reforms on the political front.
Mirziyoyev stood against four other candidates, all backed by the powers that be. The Erk party, one of Uzbekistan’s oldest and a true opposition party, fielded a candidate who was not allowed to register and could not stand.
The bar for these elections was low. Mirziyoyev won election in 2016 by taking 90% of the vote in a race that was described at the time by international observers as marred by a "lack of a genuine choice" among the presidential candidates. But despite the lack of competition, observers all admit that Mirziyoyev would have won a landslide victory even if the opposition had fielded candidates.
The fact of the elections was a step in the right direction as the country is right at the beginning of its journey to develop a democracy. The majority of the electorate in Central Asia’s most populous country do indeed believe that Uzbekistan is headed in the right direction. The majority of the voters are at this stage less interested in being able to exercise a choice and more in simply seeing stability and their incomes grow. They will vote for any candidate that can deliver on those goals.
The elections have also taken on a bigger international significance since the collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan as Uzbekistan is a key player in ensuring regional stability. Just before the vote, Washington organised a high-profile visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. She focused on Afghanistan in her talks with Mirziyoyev, while also calling for continued reforms, transparency, and accountability.
Polling station queues
At a polling station in a conservatory hall in central Tashkent, the queues to vote are long. Two old ladies stand at the entrance doling out face masks to those without, spraying hands with disinfectant and measuring the temperature of everyone entering the hall.
A team of volunteers sit at a long table processing the would-be voters. Their names are checked against a central online database and then they are registered to vote and given a ballot paper.
Three booths stand just clear of the back wall where the choice of candidate is checked off in full view of the assembled observers and a sealed ballot box stands in the centre of the room where the ballots can be deposited in full view of everyone present.
At the table are also three observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) watching the proceedings.
“So far everything seems to be in order. The voting is proceeding in a free and fair fashion, but there will be an official judgement on the vote by our head of mission tomorrow,” Tomas Xans, a German member of the delegation, who has observed many elections in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), told bne IntelliNews .
The government invited the OSCE to observe the elections and while Mirziyoyev enjoyed massive state administrative resources in the race, making the vote highly biased in his favour, Xans says that the government has been keen to work with the OSCE.
“I think they are keen to understand how an election should be run to international standards. They are treating this as a learning exercise,” Xans said after talking to government representatives in the run-up to the vote.
Despite these encouraging signs, the OSCE was still critical of the lack of competition ahead of the elections, saying not enough had been done to comply with international norms.
The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the most important election monitoring organisation in the region, has warned that Uzbekistan has not addressed a number of its longstanding recommendations. They include “those related to certain aspects of fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression, suffrage rights, citizen election observation and registration of political parties.”
200 year-long road
The official line is that Uzbekistan is a young democracy. Western democratic traditions have taken over 200 years to develop, whereas this vote arguably is only Uzbekistan’s third ever real election.
Dilorom Fayzieva, who chairs the Uzbek legislature’s International Affairs Committee, told senators in Washington during a visit in October: “It took America over 200 years; we are at the beginning of a long, challenging road. But we are confident about this path and system, and the people of Uzbekistan don’t want to reverse course.”
While Mirziyoyev has opened up the country, political reforms are not high on the government’s agenda and almost nothing has been done to encourage political pluralism or dismantle the obstacles that lie in the path of the opposition parties.
Many other positive changes have been made. Bans on NGOs have been lifted, press freedoms improved and visas returned to international media previously barred from the country such as the BBC and RFE/RL. Indeed, two bne IntelliNews correspondents were previously made persona non grata in Uzbekistan for their critical reporting of the Karimov administration. Those restrictions were quickly lifted after Mirziyoyev took office. Today bne IntelliNews is one of the only English-language publications that has a full-time correspondent in Tashkent who is allowed to work unfettered.
Mirziyoyev also freed several dozen political prisoners, some of whom had languished in Uzbek prisons for two decades, shortly after he took office in a gesture of the change that he was promising.
He also moved to end the use of forced labour in cotton fields. The practice has not been totally eradicated, but the number of people ordered to work as volunteers in the cotton fields has dropped dramatically and wages for cotton pickers have increased significantly.
Finally, Mirziyoyev (pictured below) has lifted bans on women wearing hijabs and is a lot more tolerant of adherence to Islam, which is practiced by 98% of the country’s population and was all but outlawed by Karimov.
However, political liberalisation, such as it is, has largely been concentrated in the easing of controls over the media.
In May 2020, the government announced reforms to “liberalise” its media and electoral laws. It has also claimed that it will ease campaign finance regulations and allow private donations, which remain banned.
During a meeting in Washington at the start of October, senior Senator Sodiq Safoyev admitted to US senators that there is no effective opposition in the elections but argued that the public was more critically minded than in the past and that voters were making their wishes known. “Just look at the posts and debates on Uzbek social media,” he said, as cited by VOA at the time.
Mirziyoyev has published a draft decree proposing constitutional amendments to replace the majoritarian system for parliamentary elections with a "mixed system that includes some proportional representation,” but this change has yet to be implemented.
It appears that part of Mirziyoyev’s motivation in freeing the press is to use it as another means of tracking progress with reforms and to encourage a limited debate on how effective the changes he is making are and obtain genuine comment on how the reforms could be improved.
“Without [political opposition], without criticism, without, let’s say, alternative ideas, society cannot develop,” Safoyev told bne IntelliNews at a briefing in the Uzbek embassy in London last month.
But this freeing of the press is not being extended to the political system and the development of a political opposition is being evolved very slowly if at all for the meantime.
Indeed, in the run-up to the elections, some of the loosening of the controls over the media were reversed. In March, Uzbekistan made insulting the president online a criminal offence, and in August, authorities brought a charge based on this provision against a blogger and government critic, Valijon Kalonov, after he criticised the president and called for the boycotting of the elections, Human Rights Watch reported. Other critics have also faced “spurious” criminal charges for criticising the government, the NGO reported in a question and answer briefing ahead of the elections.
Several social networks were out of action on voting day including Twitter, TikTok, the popular Russian social media site Vkontakte, as well as instant messengers Skype and WeChat, which have been blocked since July. However, other social media including Facebook, Instagram and, significantly, the messaging service Telegram, were all working normally.
“It is not political,” a government spokesman said. “Those companies are arguing with the government because it wants them to move their servers to the country and keep all the user information here, and they have refused.”
The Erk Democratic Party (the “Liberty” or “Freedom” Democratic Party) is Uzbekistan’s oldest political party. Set up in 1990, it became the first true political party to ever be registered in the history of the country.
Erk announced in April that it was going to field candidates in the election, but their registration was refused. In the same statement Erk condemned “the actions of the current government of Uzbekistan, which prevents the registration of newly created parties and uses violence against them, thereby violating their constitutional rights.”
Erk’s charter was registered at the Ministry of Justice on September 3, 1991. The party has competed in only one election: the first presidential contest in December 1991. The leader Muhammad Salih, at the time the chairman of the writers union, was Karimov’s only opponent and lost the race.
Two years later Salih went into exile in Baku and then Istanbul following mounting pressure from the Karimov administration. He was eventually accused of orchestrating a terrorist bombing in Tashkent in 1999 and sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia, effectively banning him from ever returning to the country. His three brothers were arrested and imprisoned.
According to official 1991 election results, 12.7% voted for Salih. However, according to calculations of independent observers, he won over 50% of the vote in what was widely seen as a fixed result at the time.
Erk and the opposition Truth and Development Party nominated two candidates in these elections—Salovat Umrzoqov and singer turned politician Jahongir Otajonov—but neither were allowed to register, effectively barring true opposition candidates from the race. Both parties reported that their supporters faced harassment and interference in the lead-up to the elections, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Uzbekistan has garnered significant international attention for pursuing a reform agenda, but recent human rights setbacks in the country, and the lack of any opposition or independent candidates in these elections, expose the limits of those claims,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a statement ahead of the elections. “Uzbekistan could have shown its genuine commitment to meaningful reforms by allowing presidential candidates who don’t share the government’s views to participate in the upcoming elections—but it did not.”
This year’s presidential race was contested by five candidates: Bahrom Abduhalimov of the Adolat (Justice) party; Maksuda Borisova of the People’s Democratic Party; Nazrullo Oblomuradov of the Ecological Party; Alisher Qodirov of the National Revival Party; and incumbent Mirziyoyev, who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU). All of the alternative candidates to the president were from pro-government parties and none of them were considered serious contenders, says Human Rights Watch.
The LDPU was founded in November 2003 by Karimov and since then has not only won the most seats in every parliamentary election but has also nominated the winning candidate for every presidential election.
The Potemkin opposition candidates have run low-key campaigns that have not been prominent in the local media. The only flash of excitement was when Qodirov called for the expulsion of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from the country. But even more radical was his suggestion that remittances sent home by Uzbeks working in Russia and other CIS states would be regarded as income and taxed if he became president. Living as they do in one of the poorest countries in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) bloc, many families remain entirely dependent on the cash their relatives send home each month from abroad. Mirziyoyev responded the next day, saying he would never impose such a measure.
Mirziyoyev has simply taken over the Karimov political machine and made a few changes to it, using its complete grip on power to push through his reform agenda. Indeed, Mirziyoyev served as PM in the Karimov administration from 2003 to 2016. While there has been little change to the political DNA of the country, what has changed beyond all recognition is the policy agenda of the new government.
These elections are an important milestone, but Uzbekistan’s transition to a free democratic country will take at least a generation. The key aspects of Uzbekistan’s commitment to making those changes were not really tested in these elections, but they will be tested in the next presidential elections in 2026, when Mirziyoyev is precluded by the constitution from running for a third term and is supposed to step down.