Fair Play' Claims Wear Thin After Uzbek Polls

Parliamentary election was stage-managed from start to finish, say critics.

Fair Play' Claims Wear Thin After Uzbek Polls

Parliamentary election was stage-managed from start to finish, say critics.

Rights activists and analysts say the conduct of Uzbekistan’s parliamentary election was more or less the opposite of the democratic, competitive and well-attended ballot which the authorities are claiming.

At a January 12 press briefing to announce the results of a second round of voting held two days earlier, the chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, CEC, Mirzo-Ulughbek Abdusalomov said the voting process was transparent, democratic and in line with national legislation “founded on universally recognised international standards”, with voters offered alternative candidates to choose from.

Fifteen of the 135 seats in parliament’s lower house of parliament were set aside for the Environmental Movement of Uzbekistan, and the rest contested by pro-government parties using a system of proportional representation for the first time.

The second round was necessary because the December 27 ballot left 39 seats unfilled. According to Abdusalomov, this was because vibrant competition among the parties divided the vote.

Based on final results from the CEC, the Liberal Democratic Party, which had a majority in the last parliament, won with 53 seats. The People’s Democratic Party, the original pro-government party created out of the Soviet Communist Party in the early Nineties, came second with 31 seats, the Milliy Tiklanish Democratic Party got 19 and the Adolat Social Democratic Party 15.

Overall, said Abdusalomov, the vote demonstrated that Uzbekistan’s electorate was committed to building democratic society where rule of law prevailed and civil society was strong.

However, independent observers and analysts offered a more critical assessment.

“Voters were not given a real choice,” said Alisher Taksanov, a political analyst now living outside Uzbekistan. “The opposition was not allowed to take part; the media were totally controlled.”

Taksanov believes that the vote was rigged to ensure the desired result.

“The second round was just lip-service to show that everything had been done in a democratic way,” he said. “In reality, everything went according to a [pre-set] scenario.”

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, did not deploy a full election observation mission in Uzbekistan, only a small assessment team.

ODIHR spokesman Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher told IWPR his organisation would be unable to comment on the conduct of the ballot until it published its official report in around a month’s time.

In its pre-election assessment report based on a mission conducted in October, ODIHR said it “did not identify any significant improvements in the electoral framework that continues to fall short of OSCE commitments…. Furthermore, none of the key OSCE/ODIHR recommendations offered in the past for consideration appear to have been implemented.”

A foreigner who observed the election said on condition of anonymity that the authorities made sure that monitors from abroad saw only what they wanted them to see, not “the real situation and real views of people in the country”. In his opinion, there was no real choice as all the candidates were backed by the authorities, and there were no independents or opposition members.

The Erk and Birlik parties and the more recently created Sunny Coalition and Birdamlik groups have no legal recognition in Uzbekistan and their top leaders are outside the country, so they never stood a chance of fielding candidates.

Despite the lack of opposition, the Uzbek authorities took no chances, issuing warnings to human rights activists, restricting their movements and preventing them from meeting foreign observers and journalists who had come for the election.

Bahodir Namazov, who leads the Committee for the Release of Prisoners of Conscience and is local head of the Human Rights Society, said that on the day of the second round he was visited by counter-terrorism officers from the National Security Service or SNB.

“They told me they’d been ordered to stand guard over me and it would be better if I didn’t leave the house that day,” said Namazov, adding that his colleague Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance, received a similar visit from the SNB.

He said that in the preceding days, many rights activists had reported being followed and having their phones tapped.

The CEC says over 87 per cent of people registered to vote went to the polls on December 27, a claim that has met with some scepticism.

Surat Ikramov, who heads the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders, says the turnout figure – which translates into 15 million out of 17 million registered voters – does not tally. Five million or more adults are currently believed to be outside the country, working as migrant labour in Russia, Kazakstan or further afield.

A local businessman who did not want to be named said that judging by his own observations on election day, turnout was probably closer to 40 per cent. He added that he himself would not have bothered to go, but one of the candidates was a friend of a friend of his wife so he felt he had to turn up. His daughter, who had just become old enough to vote, refused to go to the polls.

Analysts were equally dismissive of the alleged differences between the four hand-picked parties.

Taksanov said no candidate dared to criticise government polices or even discuss current issues in Uzbekistan, such as corruption or reshuffles at national and regional levels.

“Responsibility for taking decisions of this kind lies with the president [Islam Karimov], and he is not subject to any debate,” said Taksanov.

Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert who writes for the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostey, said candidates were carefully vetted to ensure they presented no threat and would not say anything controversial.

This election was no different from any previous one, and parliament would not undergo any changes as a result, said Dubnov.

As for talk of political parties battling it out, Dubnov said, “If we recall that all four political parties have the word ‘democratic’ in their names, it becomes difficult for Uzbek voters to spot the difference.”

Dubnov suspects the international community has given up on hopes for democratic change in Uzbekistan. The icy relations that followed the violence in Andijan in 2005, when government forces killed hundreds of protesters, have now thawed and neither the European Union nor the United States is seeking further confrontation, he said. In October 2009, the EU lifted the last of the sanctions it imposed in 2005.

In addition, international forces in Afghanistan are increasingly reliant on Uzbekistan as a secure supply route in from the north.

“Uzbekistan is now one of the key allies of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, one of their important transit hubs,” said Dubnov. “So neither Brussels nor Washington is interested in complicating the situation.”

Rustam Ashirov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Uzbekistan.

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