Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

High Uzbek Turnout Claims Questioned

The authorities say the general election was a resounding success, but how accurate are its figures?
By IWPR Central Asia

Uzbek officials are advertising last month’s general election as a model of fair and open democracy. A huge majority turned out to vote for an all-new parliament, the authorities say, and once last week’s run-offs were finished, the decade-long domination of one party had been upset by a newcomer.

There was only a limited contingent of foreign observers, many from other former Soviet states, so it is hard to verify figures issued by the Central Electoral Commission stating that more than 85 per cent of voters took part in the December 26 polls, and 80 per cent in the January 9 run-offs. But anecdotal evidence from eyewitnesses at polling stations suggests that turnout was in fact low.

The Liberal Democratic Party, the newest of five government-created parties that fielded candidates, ended up with a third of the 120 seats in the lower house of parliament, leaving the longstanding People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, PDPU, into second place.

Four opposition parties were unable to take part as they were refused official registration, and three of them – Erk, Birlik and Ozod Dehkonlar - decided not to go ahead with nominating candidates to stand as independents, citing obstructions placed in their way by the authorities.

An official statement from the CEC said the elections took place in a “spirit of openness”, and “there were practically no serious breaches of electoral legislation”.

That is not a view shared by the opposition. The Erk party conducted informal monitoring at polling stations, and estimated turnout at under 30 per cent, missing the 33 per cent mark needed for the vote to be valid.

“Our people counted each person, and the maximum figures we received are for a turnout of 28 per cent,” said Erk secretary general Atanazar Arifov. “We believe that the elections were not valid and that this parliament… is not legitimate.”

The authorities took steps to encourage voters to come out on election day because of the need to show that impressive numbers of people were taking part.

A third-year student at the Tashkent financial institute said that even though it was a Sunday, all the students gathered at the institute in the morning and set off to vote accompanied by their teachers. “The teacher said that we had the right to vote, and if we did not exercise our right, then they would start infringing our rights,” said the student, who did not give his name.

The mahalla committees, local community councils operating at grassroots level, provided a useful way of getting people to vote because they hold the purse-strings for welfare payments.

“Many of my neighbours went to vote because they were scared of losing their welfare payments. How can you force people to vote like this?” asked a resident of Tashkent region, who asked not to be named.

Despite such measures, many people appear to have stayed away either because of dissatisfaction with government policies, or because they were given little clue as to who they might vote for. Prospective members of parliament did not hold public meetings in a bid to win votes, and only the occasional photograph of a candidate with some anodyne words about “development” and “prosperity” were posted up in the entrance halls of apartment blocks.

The head of a polling station in Tashkent said that if people really wanted to learn about the candidates, they should have come to the polling stations, where they could have looked at the candidates’ posters to find out why they wanted to be elected and what benefits they could bring.

There are also reports of ballot-rigging at the polling stations – most commonly through one person voting on behalf of several others.

Some abuses were so blatant that even some members of pro-government parties noted them.

Bahriddin Shaivaliev, a Fidorkorlar party member assigned to observe the second-round vote at polling station number 5 in Tashkent, calculated that no more than 300 voters turned up there on January 9. “In the evening, when the vote counting began, I saw that more than a thousand ballot papers fell out of the box. This means that each person voted for three to four people,” he said.

A student who asked to remain anonymous reports seeing similar violations at polling booth 302, also in Tashkent. “I saw for myself that only 76 people voted, but when we started counting the ballots, there were 1,202 of them,” said the student.

The Liberal Democratic Party was set up in late 2003 with President Islam Karimov’s blessing – he even came up with its name. (see RCA No. 249, 28-Nov-03, Party Time in Uzbekistan, Analysts predicted that it had been set up precisely to take over from other Karimov creations which have successively held most-favoured status, including Fidokorlar, Milli Tiklanish, Adolat and the PDPA – the latter the oldest group, which has traditionally held most seats in parliament. This time, the PDPA was displaced, getting only 28 seats to the Liberal Democrats’ 41, with the others getting 18, 11 and eight respectively. The remaining 14 seats went to non-partisan candidates who are not expected to take an independent line.

The Senate, the upper house of the new bicameral legislature is yet to be formed, but its members will be appointed or indirectly elected rather than subject to a nationwide vote.

At least one pro-government candidate complained that he was treated unjustly in the run-up to the ballot.

Ziyamuhammad Muminov, standing for the Liberal Democrats in the town of Toi-Tepa outside Tashkent, discovered that he had been removed from the ballot sheet by watching television broadcast just days before election day.

“I was removed from the election campaign three days before the vote, although by law this has to take place five days beforehand, and the candidate must be informed in writing. This is a gross violation of electoral legislation,” he said.

Muminov appealed first to the CEC and then to Uzbekistan’s supreme court, but was turned down. Officials alleged that he used election campaign money to buy votes, an allegation which he denies and which has not been substantiated.

To publicise his case, Muminov held a press conference in a Tashkent hotel. Apparently pressured by police, hotel staff disrupted the event first by playing loud music, then switching off the electricity. Addressing an audience plunged into total darkness, Muminov pressed on with airing his plans to take his protest further.

It is unclear why Muminov and others like him were struck off the ballot lists, but a political scientist who wished to remain anonymous has his suspicions. “The opposition was removed for political reasons, but candidates from government parties were removed because of financial interests and bribes,” he said.

Unlike the old parliament, which met just three times a year, the new one is to be a standing body. But after an election so reminiscent of previous ones, few analysts believe the change will mean that parliament becomes a forum for lively debate and controversy.

Galima Bukharbaeva is the IWPR director in Uzbekistan. Yusuf Rasulov and Tulkin Karaev are IWPR correspondents in Tashkent and Karshi.

More IWPR's Global Voices