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Uzbekistan Takes Small but Important Step toward Democracy

By Victor Shiblie

Uzbekistan, once among the most repressive nations on earth, just held parliamentary elections. And even though the ruling party of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the clear winner, observers say the fact that such an election took place in a relatively free and fair atmosphere is itself a big step in the right direction.

The Dec. 22 vote at 150 polling stations across the former Soviet republic — as well as a Jan. 5 runoff at 25 precincts — didn’t mark the first time Uzbeks have gone to the polls. Sham elections were commonplace during the 25-year dictatorship of Islam Karimov, who ruled the landlocked nation of 33 million from the day of its independence in 1991 until his death in September 2016.

Yet Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s handpicked successor, has committed his government to a raft of reforms that include making peace with neighboring countries, liberalizing the economy and revamping the political system.

In fact, The Economist magazine dubbed Uzbekistan the “most improved nation” of 2019.

uzbekistan elections
Jabiev Nouredine, a community activist in the Matunat region of Tashkent, said he’s participated in many elections in Uzbekistan and “this year I see a difference. People are more active.” Photo: Victor Shiblie

Preliminary results announced Dec. 23 showed the president’s UzLiDeP (or Liberal Democratic Party), winning 43 seats in the 150-seat Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament. Next in place was Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival), with 35 seats, followed by Adolat (Justice Social Democratic Party) with 21 seats. Two much smaller parties picked up the remaining seats.

Nozima Davletova, a lecturer at Tashkent’s University of World Economy and Diplomacy, said “it would be naïve to suggest” that these elections will bring about any meaningful institutional changes in Uzbekistan — at least in the short term.

“What’s worthy of analysis is how the elections were organized rather than what it will bring to the country,” said Davletova, who studied at George Washington University and specializes in Central Asian foreign policy, gender issues and social justice. “The government now cares about public opinion, and even more about Uzbekistan’s international image.”

Jabiev Nouredine, a community activist in the Matunat region of Tashkent, said he’s participated in many elections and “this year I see a difference. People are more active.”

uzbekistan elections
People arrive at Tashkent’s Islam Karimov International Airport. The Economist magazine recently named Uzbekistan its “country of the year” for 2019 because of the reforms President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has instituted. Photo: Larry Luxner

“Before, we used to get paper invitations to vote, and this year it is online,” he said. “For the first time, there were televised debates between the candidates and this allowed me to change my mind based on the debates.”

In addition to the TV debates, Davletova said that journalists and bloggers were allowed to openly express their skepticism about the election process itself.

Yet civil society still has no institutional mechanisms to channel public sentiment.

“Another systemic problem is people’s unwillingness to participate in political life, which results from a lack of trust in the system. This, in turn, creates favorable conditions for fraud, ballot-stuffing and phantom voters,” Davletova said. “Generally, political parties in Uzbekistan are still reluctant to take a principled stand on key domestic and international issues. They all have rather vague but very similar programs and ideologies.”

Aziz Abdukhakimov, Uzbekistan’s deputy prime minister, conceded that “these elections cannot yet be recognized as the highest standard of democracy.”

uzbekistan elections
A billboard at the entrance to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent quotes President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as saying “Tashkent region has huge economic potential and importance.” Photo: Larry Luxner

“The importance of these elections is that for the first time, people were allowed to vote for someone who offers understandable solutions to problems that concern them,” Abdukhakimov said in an email to the Diplomatic Pouch, noting that — despite instances of fraud — a real transformation has begun.

“No matter how strange it sounds, this was a sign that a real political struggle has begun, and not just for show,” he said. “Political parties for the first time argued with each other; sometimes it even came to direct clashes broadcast on our TV channels. This experience made it clear that political disputes will become part of the political life of Uzbekistan.”

More than 700 observers from around the world monitored the Dec. 22 balloting — “definitely a positive indication of goodwill and transparency shown by the authorities,” according to a foreign diplomat based in Tashkent.

“These elections are a big step forward in terms of promoting democratic reforms in Uzbekistan, especially with regard to freedom of speech and creating a better, stronger civil society,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified. “But in the newly elected parliament, there will be no real opposition to the president. You can’t run a real democracy without opposition.”

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a division of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, assessed the voting process negatively in 14% of the polling stations it observed, and the vote count itself negatively in 42% of polling stations.

“Voting was conducted in a calm environment, but serious irregularities tarnished the process as voters were allowed to vote without identification documents, many voted with multiple ballots and on behalf of others, and voters were registered on election day without applying the required checks. The vote count was assessed negatively in 42 percent of reports,” the Warsaw-based ODIHR concluded in its preliminary report.

No one doubts that Mirziyoyev will win a second term in the 2021 presidential elections; the true test will be if he respects his two-term limit and steps down in 2025.

“This is a matter of time,” the diplomat said. “Hopefully by the next election, we will see a much more active and diversified political system in Uzbekistan.”

Victor Shiblie is publisher of The Washington Diplomat. He visited Uzbekistan in December 2019.



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