By Louisa Atabaeva
The election campaign for Uzbekistan’s snap presidential vote is well under way, but the lack of a meaningful opposition and Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s grip on power leave a change of leadership unlikely.
The July 9, 2023 ballot was announced a week after the April 30 constitutional referendum amended about 60 per cent of the constitution, including extending the presidential term from five to seven years. Under the previous rules, Mirziyoyev had three and-a-half years left of his second term and was prevented from seeking a third one.
The amendments effectively reset his tenure: should Mirziyoyev be re-elected he could potentially govern for an additional 14 years.
Temur Umarov, a fellow of the Carnegie Russia’s Eurasia Centre, said that the vote was intended to quietly legitimise Mirziyoyev and consolidate his power while he was still popular.
“Uzbek society is becoming more aware and the state is afraid that at some point it may lose control of the main narratives,” he continued, adding that in any case the vote would not be free or fair. “Naturally, there will be polling stations set up in big cities where foreign observers will be taken [to show off]. But it must be remembered that in fact, the elections will be filled with irregularities.”
Mirziyoyev himself said that he was giving up the remaining time of his current term “to better serve his people”. He promised that “the elections will be held in full compliance with the law, in an open and transparent manner” and that “parties and presidential candidates will put forward new ideas and initiatives serving the peace and prosperity of the country and the well-being of the people”.
This is implausible given the country’s history of autocracy; former president Islam Karimov ran the country with an iron fist for 25 years until 2016, when Mirziyoyev took over, suppressing any criticism at its roots.
“The opposition could not appear out of nowhere in the upcoming elections,” Umarov said. “For three decades, any shoots of opposition were harshly suppressed. In Uzbekistan, not only challengers to power were not allowed to form, but also those whose opinions were simply different. Therefore, in just a few years of Mirziyoyev’s rule, the opposition could not have emerged.”
According to legislation, candidates can only be nominated by political parties. Mirziyoyev was put forward by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (UzLiDeP) and supported by the Democratic Party Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival).
Three other candidates are running, although Mirziyoyev’s re-election appears inevitable.
Senator and former judge of the Supreme Court Robahon Mahmudova, nominated by the Social-Democratic Party Adolat (Justice), is the only female candidate. The People’s Democratic Party nominated its chairman Ulugbek Inoyatov, who has beendeputy speaker of parliament, the Oliy Majlis, since 2020 and held the post of education minister for five years until 2018.
Agricultural scientist Abdushukur Khamzaev, leader of the EcoParty of Uzbekistan, is largely unknown to the public: in 2021, he was appointed chairman of the State Committee for Ecology and Environmental Protection.
SCHOOLS, JUSTICE, ENVIRONMENT
The election campaign kicked off on June 7 and the Central Election Commission (CEC) stated that each candidate was allotted five billion som (437,000 US dollars).
In a significant move, Mirziyoyev held his first rally in Nukus, the administrative centre of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. The public meeting was the first since the repression of street protests in early July 2022 over the proposed revoking of the region’s autonomous status. The unrest resulted in 21 deaths and scores of arrests.
“People [in Karakalpakstan after the Nukus protests] are disappointed in him, even I can see this among those Karakalpaks who faithfully served the authorities,” Rafael Sattarov, another political scientist with Carnegie Russia, told IWPR. “I don’t think people there now will storm the ballot box [to vote].”
The president’s election campaign centred on social issues, with a specific focus on strengthening education, including free elementary school meals, school buses in remote areas, university benefits for families of migrant workers and kindergartens for children from low-income households. His social media campaign, coordinated by his daughter Saida Mirziyoyev, who works in the presidential administration, also advocated for the rejuvenation of rural schools.
Doubling the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), about 2,255 dollars per capita in 2022, and providing all villages with drinking water and the internet also featured.
The other candidates have extensive electoral agendas which analysts warn are in any case unrealistic. Makhmudova has built her campaign around principles including the protection of workers’ rights and provision of jobs, with specific proposals to improve the judicial and legal system.
Inoyatov’s programme includes a pledge to increase the construction of affordable housing; to grant local investors the same benefits foreign ones are entitled to and to tax on media workers, including bloggers, who make more than the average wage through online advertising.
The deputy parliamentary speaker is the only candidate other than Mirziyoyev actively using social media for his campaign: his Telegram channel significantly outnumbers other candidates on both subscribers (he has 84,000) and views. Khamzaev has developed Green Uzbekistan 2023, a programme that advocates for abandoning the use of pesticides, gradually reducing the use of plastic in packaging and increasing the fines for pollutant emissions by up to ten times. The scientist also proposed planting forests on the dried seabed of the Aral Sea and expanding green areas in north-western Uzbekistan, around Nukus, Bukhara, Urgench, Khiva, Navoi and Muinak.
Young Uzbek are not intrigued by a vote they see as business as usual: there is no intrigue, some say.
“Watching the presidential election in Turkey was much more interesting,” a 24-year-old Tashkent resident told IWPR on condition of anonymity.
Darina Solod, co-founder of the independent media Hook.report, said that participation would nonetheless be large.
“To understand why we have a fairly high turnout, you need to travel to regional precincts and see how they celebrate it,” Solod told IWPR, adding that elections are popular events, particularly in remote areas. “There, socialisation is minimal and elections provide and an element of socialisation.”
This did not equate to trust, she added.
“People are not optimistic. They have begun to notice [issues like] air pollution, water outages, endless traffic jams,” Solod said. “[They] have a big impact on the president’s popularity… it translates into total distrust. [Citizens] go to vote against the amendments [to the constitution] or spoil the ballot. But, naturally, one and the same person will win, I wouldn’t be surprised if people would say ‘fair enough,’ because the programmes of the other candidates are unrealisable, just for show.
About the author: Louisa Atabaeva is a freelance journalist covering Uzbekistan
Source: This publication was published by IWPR and prepared under the “Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project”implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.