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Uzbek Election Counts for Little

Six candidates, five political parties and only one possible winner.
By IWPR staff
There may be six candidates running for the Uzbek presidency this December, but there will be few surprises when the incumbent Islam Karimov is elected for his third term – or perhaps his second, depending on how you count his 18 years in power. Analysts say the other candidates are minor pro-government figures who are standing merely to create the impression that voters have a choice.



Despite the emergence of “rival” candidates, President Karimov held off formalising his candidacy until November 6, when he accepted a unanimous nomination by a congress of the Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, one of several parties whose creation he has engineered over the years.



In an unprecedented show of numbers, all the other legal, pro-government parties have also come up with their own candidates. On October 15, the Central Electoral Commission gave the green light to their nominees, as well as to the head of a government agency for human rights. The election will take place on December 23.



In the last presidential election, held in 2000, there was only one alternative figure whom voters could have chosen. Abdulhafiz Jalolov won four per cent of the vote despite backing Karimov and voting for him himself. Karimov won 92 per cent of the vote, although there was no way of evaluating this figure independently.



CONSTITUTIONAL QUANDARY



What has yet to be made clear is how Karimov can be re-elected at all.



He first took charge of what was then Soviet Uzbekistan in 1989, and was elected president of the now independent country in 1991. At that point, the constitution allowed him to serve two five-year terms. However, a referendum in 1995 extended his first term for a further five years, so he only stood for his second term in 2000. But two years later, the constitution was amended to make this a seven-year stretch.



That more or less exhausted the constitutional options, even for a leader who makes up the rules, and when Karimov’s term in office ran out in January 2007, the country entered a kind of constitutional limbo.



The somewhat tortuous solution – which has not been stated explicitly by the authorities – appears to be that Karimov’s third term in office is actually his second, on the assumption that he got to start all over again at the 2000 election. That second mandate was converted retrospectively into the first of two seven-year terms. Hence, he is entitled to another shot at the presidency.



According to Uzbek analyst Komron Aliev, Karimov pays little heed to constitutional niceties.“Over his last 16 years in power [since the 1991 election], Karimov has said what he wanted and done what he wanted. It would be naïve to expect any changes now,” he said. “Democracy in Uzbekistan has been destroyed and the constitution has been changed many times.”



Tashkent-based analyst Iskandar Khudoiberdiev added, “It is not the first time that the current leadership has failed to observe laws - even legislation that it adopted itself. This has been going on since the start of Karimov’s rule. Those who are in in power are above the law. We have no independent courts.”



THE OTHER CANDIDATES



To get their candidates registered, parties or public “initiative groups” are required to submit 800,000 signatures along with their application to the Central Electoral Commission, CEC. So far the only candidate not nominated by a party is also an establishment figure. Akmal Saidov is director of the National Centre for Human Rights and chairs the parliamentary committee for democratic institutions. Five individuals – three human rights activists, a doctor and an unemployed academic - announced plans to stand as independents, but have fallen by the wayside as the CEC failed to register them as candidates.



All five political parties taking part in this election are staunchly pro-Karimov, which is unsurprising as he engineered their creation one after another. Over the years they have taken it in turn to be the president’s favourite, but despite each one proclaiming a new approach when it first emerged, they are in practice indistinguishable and are largely inactive between elections.



“In recent years, the process of building parties in this country has been controlled by Islam Karimov and his administration. Therefore, all the leaders of the current parties were appointed by the president,” said an analyst in Tashkent, who asked not to be named.



Two opposition parties dating from the early Nineties, Erk and Birlik, operate only underground and their leaders are in exile. They will not be fielding candidates; nor will the more recent Ozod Dehkonlar (“Free Farmers”) Party.



The People’s Democratic Party, PDP, has nominated the leader of its parliamentary faction, Asliddin Rustamov. The PDP is the oldest of the five, emerging from the Communist Party to become Karimov’s political vehicle in the early Nineties. It fielded the only alternative candidate in the last presidential election.



The Adolat (“Justice”) Social Democratic Party has nominated parliamentarian Dilorom Tashmuhammedova – the only woman standing – while the Milli Tiklanish (“National Revival”) Democratic Party offered its candidacy to writer and parliamentarian Khurshid Dostmuhammad. These two parties were set up in 1995, perhaps to dilute the PDP’s numerical domination of parliament and allow Karimov to explore different political vehicles.



The president’s next creation was the Fidokorlar (“Self-Sacrifiers”) National Democratic Party, set up in 1998. For a time, it was the top party – a merger with another group made it the biggest parliamentary faction in 2000, and it was Fidokorlar that nominated Karimov when he was re-elected that year. The party has now selected Akhtam Tursunov, who chairs the parliamentary committee for defence and security, as its candidate.



Dating from 2003, the LDP is the most recent party to appear. It styles itself the “movement for entrepreneurs and businesspeople”. Speaking a year later, Karimov said the party was needed because the others “differ little from one another”. The LDP won a majority in the December 2004/January 2005 parliamentary election, winning 34 per cent of seats. The PDP trailed at 28 per cent while the other each scored under 20 per cent.



The LDP has underlined its dominant position by forming an alliance with Fidokorlar and Adolat called the Bloc of Democratic Forces.



“The LDP… is positioning itself as a leading force that unites businessmen and entrepreneurs under the slogan of, ‘One enterprising, courageous, energetic, determined, businesslike and vigilant person is better than thousands upon thousands of idle, apathetic people’,” said the Tashkent-based analyst.



An LDP official who asked to remain anonymous said the party will mobilise all its forces and those of the state, too, to ensure a resounding victory for Karimov.



“The LDP candidate will lead in the elections. The party now has all the resources – administrative, power, funding and information. No protest force is going to overcome this bureaucratic machine consisting of corrupt officials, security-sector figures and business elites who are, for the moment, putting their stake on Karimov,” said the source.



Another LDP official suggested this exercise in pluralism was a desperate attempt to improve Uzbekistan’s tarnished image.



“The authorities want to show the West that Uzbek elections are much more democratic than Kazak ones, so they want all the parties [to take part],” he said.



Although the December 2005 ballot in which Kazakstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev was re-elected was roundly condemned by international monitors, the four candidates standing against him did at least include some real political opponents.



NOT A HINT OF CONTEST



Analysts in Uzbekistan say none of the candidates is a heavyweight who might conceivably pose a threat to Karimov.



“Even if some of them fall by the wayside, no harm will be done as they are all much of a muchness,” said political analyst Farhad Tolipov.



The candidates’ efforts to win votes are likely to reflect this, with some lacklustre campaigning around the country, and no one saying a word against Karimov.



“Nobody is planning to mount a serious fight for the presidency,” said a Tashkent-based journalist.



VOTERS RESIGNED TO THE STATUS QUO



Across Uzbekistan, there appears to be little interest in the December election. Some voters are prepared to vote for Karimov – the only president they have ever known - on the grounds that he has brought stability.



“I know I’m voting for Karimov,” said one enthusiast in Samarkand, Karimov’s home city in western Uzbekistan. “Islam Karimov has stabilised the situation. There is no war here, and people live peacably. What more do we need?”



For people like this voter, a strong ruler is preferable to the kind of regime change led by popular revolts seen in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and earlier in Ukraine and Georgia. “We see what all these revolutions bring,” he said dismissively.



However, many others are resigned to an election that already shows signs of being rigged.



“Outsiders will not be allowed to assume power. We know very well how Karimov clings to power,” said a qualified engineer in the Khorezm region in the northwest. “Muhammad Salih was the last authoritative contender I can think of.”



Salih is leader of the unregistered Erk party and has been living in exile since 1993, when he fled because of mounting harassment. He stood against Karimov in the first presidential election, held in 1991.



A woman from the city of Navoi, south of Khorezm, said she had heard there were to be multiple candidates from multiple parties but had not decided whether to vote.



“It’s all for show. Everybody knows Karimov will win this election even if people don’t vote for him. They will fix the result and he will stay,” she said.



In southwest Uzbekistan, a village council worker said, “Now they’re saying on TV that there are many candidates, although I can’t remember their names. I heard Karimov was nominated by some party or other, and that means it’s all going to happen all over again.



“I remember how the election went seven years ago. There were people from the mahalla [neighbourhood] committees sitting in the polling stations to ensure we had Karimov’s name on our ballot papers.”



One 70-year-old pensioner plans to make a small protest against Karimov by picking the candidate nominated by the PDP, the former communist party which the president has discarded in favour of the LDP.



“People no longer believe in any party,” he said. “They know there is Karimov’s party, and the rest of them were created by Karimov to show the world how democracy is blossoming here.



“I am going to vote for the PDP because they are former communists and life wasn’t too bad when they were in power. I do know, though, that my vote will count for nothing – they will amend it [in favour of Karimov] when the ballots are being counted.”



With a just over a month to go, neither voters nor Uzbekistan-watchers are holding their breath.



“As in previous years, the election will be conducted in a pre-arranged manner which ignores the interests of the people, said analyst Khudoiberganov. “We will see 85 to 90 per cent of the electorate voting for one man.”



(The names of many interviewees have been withheld for security reasons.)

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