Uzbek Leader Changes Rules on Presidential Term

Uzbek Leader Changes Rules on Presidential Term

President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. (Photo: Agência Brasil/Creative Commons)
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. (Photo: Agência Brasil/Creative Commons)

A decision to reduce the presidential term in office in Uzbekistan has left analysts divided on its true significance. One thing they are sure of is that it isn’t necessarily a sign President Islam Karimov’s grip on power is slipping. The idea actually came from him – and he has been in charge since Communist days.

Karimov’s proposed constitutional amendment was passed by the Senate or upper house of parliament on December 5. It had already gone through the lower house.

Parliament’s press office put out a less-than-illuminating explanation, saying the shift from seven-year terms to five years “reflects the objective reality, logic and consistency” of “democratic reforms” now under way. What it did not mention why Karimov, who got the five-year system extended to seven in a rubberstamp referendum back in 2002, had decided to change it back.

Local commentators say the one thing it is not about is democratic reform, in a country where Karimov has changed the rules whenever necessary to get himself re-elected over the last two decades. Before independence in 1991, he was Communist party chief of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

As a Tashkent-based analyst who asked not to be named put it, “All power remains concentrated in Karimov’s hands.”

The 2002 referendum introducing seven-year presidential terms was used as an argument that since the constitution had changed, Karimov was back to square one, as the rules that would have prevented him standing for election again no longer applied. Some suspect he might be about to press the reset button all over again.

Last elected in 2007, Karimov’s current term runs out in 2014. Now 73, he has not nominated a successor, and there is little chance of him being replaced in a free and fair election.

A member of parliament from the Liberal Democratic Party, which like all those represented in the legislature is loyal to the president, suggested the veteran leader might now be considering the succession issue.

“Karimov has two years more to decide on a successor,” said the politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Recent rumblings from his entourage suggest he’s looking closely at the potential candidates, and thinking about who he can entrust the country to after he goes.”

The politician added that Karimov wanted to go down in history “not as an ousted dictator but as the founder of the new Uzbek state”.

Other commentators think the Uzbek leader may have more immediate worries. They note that the constitutional change was executed shortly after his Kazak counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev called a snap election – most likely after watching what happened when authoritarian leaders in several Arab states lost their grip this year.

“Islam Karimov has learned a lesson from the Arab Spring,” a media-watcher in Tashkent said. “He has no desire to share the fate of toppled dictators,” a media sector analyst from Tashkent said. “But he is very well aware there are no guarantees he will escape a Libyan-style scenario, so he has chosen the path of least resistance.”

Yusuf Rasulov, an Uzbek journalist based in Sweden, suspects Karimov may be hinting he would be prepared to step down.

“He’s pursuing a preemptive strategy – making it known he’s ready to resign peacefully when his current term is over, in exchange for his own and his family’s safety,” Rasulov said.

By contrast, Tashpulat Yoldashev, a political analyst now living in the United States, dismisses any suggestion that the Uzbek leader is at all serious about ceding power. “It’s just another of Karimov’s games to distract the public from the harsh social and economic problems facing the country,” he said. “And now everyone is scratching their heads over what his initiative means.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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