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

Karimov's Rivals Unite to Praise Him

Few surprises can be expected in an election where the candidates all agree the incumbent is the country’s best option.
By IWPR Central Asia
As Uzbekistan heads for a presidential election this weekend, few observers believe the electorate faces anything resembling a serious political choice.

Not only are the candidates’ platforms free of innovatory ideas or reformist pledges, but their speeches routinely start by singing the praises of incumbent president Islam Karimov.

A total of four contenders are taking part in the December 23 ballot. As well as Karimov, they include Asliddin Rustamov, head of the parliamentary group of the People’s Democratic Party, Diloram Tashmuhammedova, a member of parliament for the Adolat party, and Akmal Saidov, director of the National Centre for Human Rights.

Karimov who has led the country for 18 years, is seeking a third term in office, or perhaps a second, depending on how his years in power are calculated.

While the candidates’ election programmes were all aired in the state-run newspapers Pravda Vostoka and Narodnoe Slovo, on official websites and on national TV, analysts say their positions resemble propaganda for Karimov’s regime more than an offer of alternative leadership.

“Perhaps they were just conveying instructions from above,” one local journalist told IWPR, “because the main point for the authorities is now to show that the elections are legitimate.”

Observers have noted that the programme statement made by each candidate starts with a positive assessment of the “valuable transformations made in the social, economic, political, legal and spiritual spheres” during the 16 years since Uzbekistan obtained its independence from the USSR.

They say the contenders dwell on the correctness of government policy, and the “deepening” processes of modernisation, democratisation and liberalisation.

The differences between candidates are limited to insignificant areas.

Tashmuhammedova, the only woman candidate, for example, has called for more work on correcting gender imbalances, enhancing the role of women, and for a “deepening and acceleration of social and economic reforms”.

Rustamov, meanwhile, focuses on the need to increase the effectiveness of local government. “With this in mind, we support the current reforms to create a socially-oriented market economy,” he said, “and we advocate broadening the range of state programmes that target the least advanced sections and groups of the population”.

Saidov’s election speech told of the need to promote “the creation of an open civil society”, notwithstanding the “valuable results that have been achieved over the last 16 years”.

President Karimov has the most voluminous election platform of all. In it, he has urged the completion of ten tasks for “a new phase of reforming and modernising Uzbekistan’s society”.

Among them he lists faster economic development, higher pay, a “phased transition” from “a strong state to a strong civil society”, and liberalisation of the judiciary and legal systems under the slogan, “Justice is supreme in law”.

Farhad Talipov, a political scientist from Tashkent, says he did not bother to familiarise himself with the candidates’ election platforms since he “knew what type of these programmes would be in advance”.

“From the very beginning, their political programmes have not differed from one other,” he said. “For that reason, there was no point expecting them to offer new domestic and foreign policy approaches to resolving national problems – and that’s been shown by the current election campaign.”

A representative of a scientific institution in Tashkent agreed, saying no one was under the illusion that this was a serious political contest.

“It’s safe to say all the programmes have been prepared by a group of political technologists with an eye to the victory of the only candidate known to everyone [Karimov],” this source said.

Observers in Uzbekistan say most voters know little about the various candidates’ views as they have not had a chance to attend election meetings. These events are attended only by party activists, leaders of the mahallas or neighbourhood committees, assorted dignitaries and officials, plus hand-picked “representatives of the public”.

“I can’t take this election seriously,” one man in his forties told IWPR. “I don’t see any differences between the programmes.

“People don’t believe victory [of any rival to Karimov] is even theoretically possible, so they are indifferent to their pre-election programmes and slogans,” said another man.

However, not all Uzbeks are bored by the political charade.

“I am interested in the personalities of the candidates… and I like Dilorom Tashmuhammedova,” a female teacher from Surkhandarya in the southeast of the country told IWPR. “I consider her participation in this election a heroic deed.”

Some voters clearly intend to vote for one or other of Karimov’s rivals, however unconvincing their campaigns.

A post office worker told IWPR, talking of his office colleagues, said. “We do not know the full list of candidates or their programmes, but we’ve decided to vote for some other candidate [than Karimov],”

Inga Sikorskaya is an IWPR editor in Bishkek.

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