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Uzbekistan: Referendum Slated

Human rights activists criticise Uzbekistan's latest referendum on constitutional reform
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Independent observers have raised serious doubts over the validity of the January 27 national referendum in Uzbekistan on presidential and parliamentary reforms.


According to the Central Electoral Commission, CEC, almost 92 per cent of the electorate turned out for the poll, with 91 per cent opting for an extension of Islam Karimov's presidential term from five to seven years and 93 per cent backing the creation of a bicameral parliament.


But human rights activists claimed serious breaches of voting rules surpassed even the tarnished presidential elections in 2000. That ballot was dismissed by US officials as "offering Uzbek voters no true choice".


Neither the US nor the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, sent observers to the January 27 poll.


A lack of independent observers, laxity in handing out ballot papers, the presence of police and national security personnel at polling stations and the design of the ballot papers all served to undermine the process, critics claimed.


For example, to vote against the proposals one had to cross out the question, to vote in favour one simply put the ballot paper in the box unmarked. Hence only those voting against had to go to the voting booths or use a pencil.


"When I was given my voting paper and the system was explained to me, I headed for a booth. I was immediately asked, 'Young man are you against this?' That's an infringement of my right to vote in secret," said voter Bobomurad Abdullaev.


Vladimir Grachev from Tashkent found someone had already voted in his name when he turned up at the polling station. "I was indignant so someone gave me a ballot paper and told me I could vote again," he said.


Fellow Tashkent voter Yelena Ikaeva said, "I thought I'd just be voting for myself, but I was given my father's ballot paper even though I didn't ask for it."


Sandjar, an election official at polling station No. 514 in Tashkent, confessed to IWPR that some voters had been allowed to vote on behalf of several individuals.


"If the head of the family came and said he would be voting for several people, we gave him several voting papers," Sandjar said. He added that at first efforts had been made to issue ballot papers honestly, but this had ended after a few hours.


"Every two hours we had to give reports on voter attendance," Sandjar explained. "So we started handing out several voting papers at a time. In reality, I think attendance was about 40 per cent and I think the exaggeration of that number is a clear infringement. Not voting at the referendum is a protest and is also a statement of one's position."


Abdurafik Akhadov, chairman of the CEC, claimed the referendum was honest and that not a single infringement had been reported.


Despite the almost unanimous result, however, several important questions remain unanswered.


It is unclear whether the constitutional amendments are to take immediate effect or whether the presidential term is only to be extended after the next scheduled elections in 2005. And there are also some doubts as to whether Karimov will decide to seek re-election.


Speaking on the day of the referendum, Karimov left me guessing over his intentions. "Because of my age I'm getting to the point where I have to think more of who will continue the aims, the ideology and the model for the development of Uzbekistan which I began back in 90-91," he said.


The president said there were many among the younger generation who shared his vision and that should power be transferred to them, the country would be brought closer to Western standards. Karimov said he would clarify his position on re-election in the next couple of years.


The haste with which the referendum was carried out and the extent of infringements suggest the vote was deemed essential to the future plans of the present authorities.


According to Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the European and Central Asian division of Human Rights Watch, the timing of the plebiscite is no coincidence.


"Karimov is testing the international community to see what he can get away with now that he's viewed as a critical partner in the war (against terrorism). He probably believes that he's traded a military base and a bridge for a free ride on democracy and human rights issues," Andersen said, referring to the Uzbek assets Karimov has allowed the US to use.


She described the referendum as a "blatant grab for power".


Uzbek officials insist the reforms will improve the professionalism of parliament and the efficiency of the presidency. They claim the changes will enhance democracy and the liberalisation of social and political life in Uzbekistan.


But one has to ask whether such lofty aims are attainable through elections where corruption and gerrymandering appear so commonplace.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR country director in Uzbekistan


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