Uzbek Leader's Re-Election Dismissed as Charade

While the regime claims Islam Karimov was endorsed by a thumping 88 per cent of voters, critics suspect the alternative candidates did far better than the official figures show.

Uzbek Leader's Re-Election Dismissed as Charade

While the regime claims Islam Karimov was endorsed by a thumping 88 per cent of voters, critics suspect the alternative candidates did far better than the official figures show.

Uzbekistan’s incumbent president, Islam Karimov, has hammered his nominal opponents and secured a further stay in power in a vote that critical members of the electorate dismiss as pure theatre.

Late on December 24, the Central Election Commission, CEC, announced preliminary results from the previous day’s presidential election, showing that Karimov received more than 13 million votes, or 88.1 per cent of the vote.

Three other contesters, 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, received 3.17, 2.94 and 2.85 per cent of the votes respectively.

No election in Uzbekistan has yet been recognised as free, fair or otherwise up to international standards by western observers since the country emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991, and this vote was no exception.

From the start of the campaign, all three rivals of the hard-line president routinely started their speeches by singing his praises.

The limited election observation mission sent earlier this month by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, said the presidential election fell short of democratic standards.

In a December 24 statement, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, concluded that the poll took place in a “strictly controlled political environment, leaving no room for real opposition, and the election generally failed to meet many OSCE commitments for democratic elections”.

Ambassador Walter Siegl, who led the team of about 20 observers, noted that more candidates took part than on previous occasions, and that they included one woman. Despite this, he said, “since all candidates in the present election publicly endorsed the incumbent, the electorate was deprived of a genuine choice".

The OSCE/ODIHR team’s findings cite numerous violations of election legislation ranging from proxy voting to the alteration of figures during the count and tabulation.

To test the poll’s probity, one independent journalist in Tashkent succeeded in voting at two polling stations by registering as a resident in different electoral constituencies.

“I came to two [polling] stations, found my name on the roll at both, obtained ballots and happily voted twice,” he said. “People say there were others who managed to vote even more. It depends on how much real estate you have.”

While some voters had a chance to cast multiple ballots, others found their votes were stolen.

“A friend who works in a mahalla [neighbourhood] committee told me she had voted on behalf of me and all my family,” said one Tashkent resident, adding that this was done so as “not to bother the constituency workers and make them go round people’s apartments and persuade them to vote at the end of a busy day”.

Despite similar findings by local human rights watchdogs, the CEC turned a blind eye to this and other reported violations, and declared that the vote had been held “in strict accordance with national election legislation”.

At a briefing the day after the polls, the election body said it had received no complaints from the 23,000 local observers, most of whom were drawn from state agencies.

While the authorities denied accreditation to foreign media, fearing they would air the election’s shortcomings, the state-controlled media were mobilised to endorse Karimov’s victory. The state news site UzA quoted a number of “friendly” foreign monitors as saying the vote was “free, open and transparent”.

The Uzbek media frequently aired the assessment made by Sergey Lebedev, head of the Russian-led election monitoring mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Lebedev said his mission noticed few minor shortcomings, but added that these were “of a technical nature”.

The CEC claimed a turnout of just over 14.7 million voters, or 91 per cent of the electorate. This very high figure raised further doubts about the accuracy of the results.

Surat Ikramov, Tashkent-based leader of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan, said the CEC had been “rash” in asserting that almost 15 million voters visited the polls.

“The CEC does not take into account that more than 5.5 million of our nationals are in other countries, where they’ve gone to earn money because of the lack of work [here],” said Ikramov.

According to Ikramov, about one-third of the country’s eligible voters were currently migrant workers abroad, especially in Russia and Kazakstan, and as most had gone there illegally, they could not possibly have obtained ballots to vote.

“It’s an obvious fabrication,” said Ikramov.

Ikramov also reported that in an unofficial straw poll, 34 per cent of respondents said they voted for Saidov, 21 per cent for Tashmuhammedova, 16 for Karimov and two for Rustamov, while 27 had declined to state their preference.

Interviews appeared to back this claim up. Saidov, who heads a government human rights body not known for rocking the boat, also appeared to have won more support than the official results indicated.

“I voted for Akmal Saidov in order for Islam Karimov not to win,” said an employee of a Tashkent banks. “I know nothing about the other candidates, but I think they have already discredited themselves by their loyalty to the power structures.”

Another Tashkent citizen, Feruza, a student, said she had voted for Saidov because at least he did not belong to a political party. “All party members are bootlickers,” she said.

Like many inhabitants of the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, where the security forces killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in May 2005, Saida Abdurasulova said she voted for Saidov on account of his human rights background.

“When I arrived to the polling station, one of the women who instructed me how to fill out the ballot asked whether I knew who I should vote for, and told me, “Vote for Karimov!”. I told her I did know who I’d be voting for,” said Abdurasulova. “I voted for Saidov because I heard that he has human rights experience, even though I know this ‘nationwide show’ was organised only to re-elect one person. This was the only way for me to express my dissatisfaction with how poorly the current government respects its people’s human rights.”

During his 16 years of authoritarian rule, Karimov has silenced all his critics, jailing forcing opposition members, human rights activists and journalists or forcing them into exile and exerting strict control over the media.

Karimov, who has run the resource-rich and strategically important country since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, has served two terms in office already. Although the constitution limits presidential terms to two, the CEC approved Karimov’s candidacy last month. Tashkent has offered no public explanation as to why the constitutional rule was ignored.

One Tashkent resident who gave his first name as Ibrahim said he voted for Karimov in the belief that any new ruler would merely start by enriching himself and his family.

“If there was a new president, you would just have a redistribution of property and struggles between family clans,” he said. “For ordinary people, that would mean more trouble and deprivation. Let Karimov remain. We’ve got used to him.”

Other citizens agreed that Karimov would remain in power regardless of people’s wishes.

Khurshid, a shop owner in Tashkent, said he and his wife voted for Saidov “because all our friends are going to vote for him”.

“No one thinks the authorities will allow anyone else other than Karimov to win. But, anyway, our big company of supporters has voted for Saidov just to see whether our choices are reflected in the official results.”

Nadezhda Atayeva, president of the French-based Human Rights in Central Asia association, predicted that even Karimov’s most loyal opponents could now face trouble for receiving too many votes.

“Now he [Karimov] has to decide how each of the alternative candidates behaved,” Atayeva told IWPR. “Note that the most popular of the alternative candidates, Akmal Saidov, was officially rated last, whereas in fact he received the majority of votes. Saidov may well now be written off in the political arena as a disloyal individual.”

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

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