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

Uzbeks Invite Friendly Monitors to Bless Polls

While the OSCE cites grave democratic shortcomings, there will be no shortage of praise from the election observers sent by former Soviet states.
By IWPR Central Asia
Uzbekistan is putting on a show of democratic legitimacy for the December 23 presidential election, dispatching thousands of observers to polling stations throughout the country.

In a recent speech marking Constitution Day, President Islam Karimov said 23,300 observers would monitor the vote, drawn from local state organisations, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and Muslim countries.

But while some of these observers will visit polling stations, monitor the sealing of ballot boxes and attend the count, few analysts expect their presence to make much of a difference.

Significantly, the OSCE is not mounting the comprehensive monitoring exercise that is normal in other member states. Earlier this month, it announced that its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, was sending only a limited contingent of about 20 observers, because it did not see any real competition taking place among the four candidates.

“Due to the apparent limited nature of the electoral competition, it is not considered necessary to deploy short-term observers and the OSCE/ODIHR will not conduct any systematic and comprehensive observation of election-day proceedings, but observers will nonetheless visit a number of polling stations on election day,” said a statement from the organisation.

A political analyst who declined to be named commented, “The fact that the OSCE is sending only a limited mission and is not going to [fully] monitor the vote suggests its assessment of the presidential elections will be negative.”

Farhad Tolipov, a political analyst based in Tashkent, said the government was not worried by this implied slur on the election process, even though it was fully aware of the views of international organisations like the OSCE.

“Both sides are perfectly aware of the situation, which is why the authorities have taken no steps to win over the OSCE,” he said.

The OSCE and the Tashkent regime have clashed before over the government’s conduct of elections.

During the last presidential election, held in 2000, the OSCE similarly declined to conduct comprehensive monitoring, saying the vote was “not democratic, non-transparent and did not provide equal rights to all participants”.

The OSCE also condemned the 2004 parliamentary election, saying that it was far from democratic and that the election process needed “radical changes”.

Uzbekistan’s hard-line president appears indifferent to the OSCE’s concerns.

“The OSCE results are not very important for us,” he said in 2004. “It is not the only organisation for us, because the OSCE represents Europe and we are in Central Asia.”

At the same time, Karimov insisted that as a member state, Uzbekistan remained committed to the grouping’s principles.

Beside the token OSCE mission, other foreign observers will represent the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Eurasian Economic Community of former Soviet states, and most numerous of all, the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, whose members are sending more than 80 monitors.

CIS observers have opened regional headquarters in Samarkand, Bukhara and Fergana.

They are seen as a “friendly” mission by Tashkent, and on past performance they will not make any critical remarks however the poll is conducted.

As one political expert put it, CIS observer teams are “always loyal in assessing Central Asian elections”.

He added, “It was the same during the [August] parliamentary election in Kazakhstan, and in presidential elections in other Central Asian countries.”

A similar scenario was played out in Tajikistan in November 2006 after the incumbent president, Imomali Rahmon, was elected for a third time. Although the opposition did not take part in that election, the CIS mission blandly endorsed the vote as transparent, free and democratic.

Uzbek human rights activists argue that the authorities want large-scale but toothless election monitoring in hope of pasting over the cracks in the electoral process.

“The announcement that large numbers of observers – about 23,500 of them, most of whom are controlled by the authorities – shows the government intends to cover up the illegitimacy of the current election,” said Surat Ikramov, the Tashkent-based leader of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists of Uzbekistan.

Originally Soviet Uzbekistan’s Communist boss, President Karimov has held a tight grip on power throughout the 16 years of independence. He has been elected head of state twice and managed to prolong existing terms in office on two occasions.

There are no legally-operating opposition parties.

According to an anonymous source in the Liberal Democratic Party, which nominated Karimov as its candidate, the majority of local election observers are drawn from the ranks of this and other parties that are equally subservient to the regime.

Apart from Karimov, three other individuals are standing - Asliddin Rustamov, nominated by the People’s Democratic Party, Diloram Tashmuhammedova of the Adolat party, and Akmal Saidov, director of the National Centre for Human Rights.

Human rights activists and observers say none of them constitutes any kind of threat to Karimov, and that genuine opposition candidates were not allowed to stand.

Inga Sikorskaya is an IWPR editor in Bishkek.

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