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

Karimov's Walkover Fails to Set Media on Fire

As everyone knows who is going to win the Uzbek presidential ballot, it is not surprising that media campaigning has lacked drama and urgency.
By IWPR Central Asia
A programme called “Elections – the Mirror of Democracy” is shown on state television twice a week, in Russian and in Uzbek, telling viewers about the presidential polls taking place in Uzbekistan on December 23.

But a mirror of democracy is just what Uzbekistan’s election race is not, according to most observers. They maintain the odds are stacked so heavily in favour of the incumbent Islam Karimov that there is not even a pretence at giving the other three candidates an equal chance.

Campaigning in the media kicked off in Uzbekistan on November 18, after the four candidates were formally registered.

Aside from Karimov, they are Asliddin Rustamov, leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, Diloram Tashmuhammedova, chair of the Adolat party, and Akmal Saidov, director of the National Institute for Human Rights.

Officially, the race is running well. The Central Election Commission, CEC, publishes regular updates, and recently noted that the polling stations had been supplied with election literature, posters and brochures outlining who the candidates and what they stood for.

The statement said the contest was being covered by about 100 media outlets in the country.

The various parties behind the candidates have received government funding to run media campaigns. According to CEC, six million US dollars has been earmarked for advertisements, posters and other publicity material, as well as TV and radio broadcasts.

Each candidate was given ten minutes free airtime to deliver an address on state TV and radio, and a designated amount of column-space in the government newspapers Narodnoe Slovo and Pravda Vostoka.

Observers say that while there is some uniformity in the amount of airtime distributed among the candidates, the information is presented in such a form that voters are left in no doubt whom they should pick.

“Reporting on the candidates is absolutely similar except for the reports on the Karimov’s pre-election tours,” said one TV viewer from Tashkent. “These begin with a speech from Karimov which is usually interrupted by applause from the audience.”

Another viewer also complained of the monotony of reports on the other candidates. “I listened to their addresses on radio and TV, but none of them even said they wanted to win the election, let alone what reforms they would undertake if they did.

“They all talked about how nice it was to live in independent Uzbekistan and what progress we have made within the last few years under Karimov. They promise that the Uzbek nation will have an even better life in future - but they don’t talk about what would happen under another president.”

Viewers say programmes like “Mirror of Democracy” have not made much difference.

“How can we decide who to vote for based on these programmes?” asked one voter from the western city of Bukhara. “I’d like to watch a TV debate where several candidates speak – that’s how it’s done in other countries like the United States and France, and it’s interesting to watch.

“Who is going to speak against Karimov here?”

Most local newspapers in Uzbekistan, meanwhile, provide only the bare minimum of information about the other candidates. “When they write about Karimov’s meetings with voters in the regions, they quote a lot from him and from the speeches made in his support,” complained Hamid, a civil society activist.

“As for the meetings with voters held by other candidates, they simply report that these took place on one place or other. There’s no other information.”

Public information in Uzbekistan is entirely in the hands of the authorities. There are no independent media, the internet is filtered and censored, and pressures have become even greater during the election period.

A tour of central Tashkent reveals that visually, too, Karimov dominates the landscape.

“There are photos, biographies and the main programmes of the four candidates posted in the windows of several large stores,” he noted. “But Karimov’s programme is twice as long as the others’,” he added.

There were no banners or big posters at all, he added. Sources in other cities report the same minimal level of street advertising. In some regions, a few posters have been put up, reading: “Young generation, vote for a bright future for this country”, or “Elections serve the future of the country”.

A student from a university in northern Uzbekistan spotted a few small leaflets that were stuck on the walls of a café.

“I think no one will read them here,” he said. “There are no other election posters, although the city is usually full of all kinds of advertisements and billboards with pictures saying how good it is for people to live in Uzbekistan.”

Many local people believe more convincing media agitation on behalf of the other candidates would not have made much difference to the outcome of the elections in any case outcome of voting was predetermined, they maintain.

“The election campaign ended a month ago, when the voters’ signatures needed for the registration of the candidates were all collected,” one woman working in a Tashkent factory told IWPR. “Everyone in our plant was forced to sign up for Islam Karimov,” she added. “And on the day of election, they [officials] will visit each house and make us come to polling station to vote for him.”

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)