Uzbekistan is a prominent player in Central Asian politics. In the recently held general elections, the populace eagerly engaged, with approximately 87% of eligible voters voting. However, the outcome of these elections had far-reaching consequences, since it awarded President Shavkat Mirziyoyev a third term, raising concerns about the country’s democratic reform trajectory.
Central Asian Republics (CARS), including Uzbekistan, have traditionally been characterised by autocratic governments, which are frequently supported by neighbouring ‘Black Knight States’ such as Russia and China (AL JAZEERA, 2023).
Historical Context of Uzbekistan’s Elections
Uzbekistan has struggled to develop a democratic government system since obtaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. President Islam Karimov, who ruled with an iron fist until his death in 2016, dominated the early years of independence. Elections were held during his reign, although they were severely criticised as mere formalities, devoid of serious competition and meaningful voter participation (Pottenger, 2004). Mr Islam Karimov was infamous for dominating with a ferocious hand, employing authoritarian means to solidify control and crush any resistance or criticism. His regime was marked by a lack of political freedom, media control, human rights violations, and the repression of dissenting voices. Here are some examples of how he maintained tight control over Uzbekistan during his rule:
- Political Repression: Karimov’s regime targeted political opponents, activists, and human rights defenders on a regular basis. Opposition parties were either prohibited or restricted, leaving little possibility for political diversity. If they ventured to criticise the government, independent journalists and media outlets faced persecution, intimidation, and jail.
- Widespread Torture and Imprisonment: During Karimov’s reign, claims of torture and ill-treatment of captives were common in Uzbekistan. Torture in prisons has been reported by human rights organisations and the United Nations, including beatings, electric shocks, and asphyxiation, which are frequently used to extort confessions or quiet criticism (HRW, 2011).
- Andijan Massacre: The Andijan Massacre in May 2005 was one of the most horrific episodes under Karimov’s reign. Protests erupted in Andijan, with locals voicing their displeasure with government repression and demanding political reforms. In response, security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. The Uzbek government justified the incident as a retaliation to “terrorists,” although it was widely condemned internationally.
- Forced Labour: Karimov’s dictatorship was also chastised for using child and forced labour in the cotton industry. To meet output requirements and increase the country’s economy, the government forced individuals, including children, to labour in cotton fields, frequently under severe conditions.
- Restrictions on Religious Freedom: The government of Uzbekistan implemented strong controls on religious practises, notably targeting Islamic organisations seen as possible dangers to the rule. Mosques were strictly watched, and religious leaders who did not conform with state-approved religious institutions faced government meddling and incarceration.
- Civil Society Suppression: Independent civil society organisations experienced considerable constraints. Human rights, democracy, and political reform NGOs were either shut down or tightly restricted by the government, making it difficult for them to work freely.
- Rigged Elections: During Karimov’s reign, elections were heavily criticised for being neither free nor fair. The administration frequently manipulated electoral processes to keep Karimov and his supporters in power. Opposition candidates faced obstacles, and election results were often predetermined in favor of the ruling party. Even the referendums were used to fulfill the goals of the President.
These examples show how President Islam Karimov employed coercive methods to keep control of Uzbekistan throughout his presidency. His tenure was marked by a lack of political liberties, human rights violations, and a systematic crackdown on any form of opposition, all of which contributed to his image as an autocratic ruler ruling with an iron fist. Karimov’s reign was marked by widespread censorship, political repression, and dissent smothering, making it difficult for any opposition to arise (HRW, 2016).
Mirziyoyev’s Initial Reforms and Hopes for Change
Following Karimov’s death, Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over as president, promising to implement political and economic changes. His early measures, including as the release of some political prisoners and the relaxation of media restrictions, created optimism for a possible change towards a more open and participatory political system. Furthermore, Uzbekistan implemented economic reforms aimed at attracting foreign investment and diversifying the economy away from its reliance on commodities. The 2016 presidential election, in which Mirziyoyev was officially elected to finish Karimov’s term, saw a minor loosening of electoral controls, and international observers noticed notable improvements in the election’s conduct. These advances were welcomed cautiously as possible steps towards a more democratic Uzbekistan (Outlook, 2023).
President Mirziyoyev implemented reforms and worked to improve Uzbekistan’s worldwide image throughout his presidency. In order to present his pleasing picture, he showed mercy on the political prisoners and acquired a very liberal approach towards the media. Actually, he was trying to attract international investments by adopting a liberal approach. He also sought regional diplomacy and worked to strengthen relations with neighbours. It is crucial to emphasise, however, that Uzbekistan has a history of authoritarianism, a lack of political plurality, and human rights issues, and considerable obstacles remained during Mirziyoyev’s reign. Despite some efforts at liberalisation, opposition parties continue to confront restrictions and major barriers to participation in the political process (Imamova, 2019). Aside from that, while some media restrictions were relaxed, independent journalists and media outlets continued to endure harassment and censorship, particularly when reporting on sensitive matters or criticising the government. Furthermore, reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, and ill-treatment of detainees persisted during Mirziyoyev’s tenure, showing that human rights violations persisted. During Mirziyoyev’s reign, the most significant setback to the democratic system was the lack of substantial opposition to the government, as well as genuine political plurality and open discourse (Ecoi.net, 2018).
Challenges to Reform and the Third Term
Despite early promises of change, Mirziyoyev’s reign has been marked by a complex combination of reforms and power consolidation. While some political prisoners have been released, stories of arbitrary arrests and repression of activists and journalists who criticise the government continue. Media freedom is limited, with little room for independent voices. Despite strong voter turnout, the recent elections have raised questions about the process’s trustworthiness. Reports of anomalies and charges of voter coercion have put doubt on the outcome’s legitimacy (Staff, 2018). Furthermore, the lack of viable opposition candidates and true political plurality has prompted concerns about Uzbekistan’s level of political openness.
The government was expected to approve a new law on political parties during these elections, making it simpler for new parties to register and participate in elections. The government was anticipated to change the media legislation to provide journalists more freedom to report on difficult themes and to establish a new ombudsman’s office to investigate allegations of human rights violations. President Mirziyoyev acted positively in several circumstances, allowing more political parties to participate in the elections and making it easier for independent candidates to run. He also promised to strengthen media freedom and allow more independent news groups to flourish. Apart from it immediately before the elections, he promised to strengthen civil society, and allow more non-governmental organizations to operate (U.S. Embassy, 2023).
The reality of reforms
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observation team lauded the recent elections, calling them “technically well-prepared,” but lacking in “genuine competition.” According to it, the current election is superior to the previous three elections in 2021, 2019, and 2016. The ODIHR stated in its initial report that the elections in 2021 were not held in a “genuinely pluralistic environment,” that during the elections in 2019, the government demonstrated “greater tolerance of independent voices but did not yet demonstrate genuine competition,” and that the 2016 elections were “a campaign devoid of genuine competition.” (OSCE, 2021).
In Uzbekistan’s presidential election on July 9, four candidates ran. These candidates were briefly described as follows: one was a former education minister, another was a former high-ranking forestry official, and the third was a career judge who had recently served in the Senate, all of whom were known for their staunch support for the administration. To participate in elections in Uzbekistan, political parties must be registered, and the country currently has five registered political parties (RFERL, 2023).
The election campaign was underwhelming, with President Mirziyoyev travelling several districts but no actual discussions between the contenders. Instead, television “debates” between candidates’ representatives were staged, with no serious discussions or differing ideas for the country’s future. Notably, the OSCE found that all registered political parties and candidates supported President Mirziyoyev’s policies, showing a lack of meaningful opposition or alternative platforms. Furthermore, one of the political parties, Milliy Tiklanish, led by Alisher Qodirov, chose to support Mirziyoyev’s candidature rather than run independently, reducing the competitive environment even further. This absence of genuine competition, combined with all registered parties’ overwhelming support for the incumbent president’s policies, raises concerns about the extent of genuine political plurality and democratic debate in Uzbekistan’s electoral process (Gazeta, 2023).
President Mirziyoyev’s goal of constructing a “New Uzbekistan” was launched in 2021, with plans to strengthen civil society institutions and protect human rights. Instead of pursuing these reforms, he has focused on bolstering the existing system of authoritarian control inherited from his predecessor, the powerful leader Islam Karimov. Although Uzbekistan’s international partners must continue to fight for changes, particularly in the area of human rights, they must also be prepared to reduce assistance if the government abandons its reform trajectory entirely (Mirziyoyev’s, 2020).
However, it is critical for the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and other countries to prioritise human rights and help the people of Uzbekistan whose rights are being infringed. Human rights should be a core tenet in their interactions with Tashkent. As part of its enhanced partnership agreement with Uzbekistan, which was begun a year ago, the EU, in particular, has a broader cooperative commitment to democratic reforms, the rule of law, and human rights. These requirements are also spelt out in a preferential trade agreement between the EU and Uzbekistan. These countries should express their human rights expectations clearly and offer assistance in meeting them. They should, however, be prepared to limit their cooperation with Uzbekistan if, as expected, these expectations are not satisfied. It is critical for Uzbekistan’s present and future presidents to grasp that a “New Uzbekistan” must be characterised by actions rather than mere words (CAP, 2017). The latest election is the second stage of President Mirziyoyev’s planned plan to solidify power this year. The first step was a referendum on a new constitution in April, effectively resetting the terms of Mirziyoyev’s presidency and allowing him to serve two additional seven-year terms. The outcome of the election on Sunday is expected to clear the path for him to retain power until at least 2037.
Challenges Ahead for President Mirziyoyev
President Mirziyoyev, now in his third term, confronts considerable problems in balancing the needs of his home constituency and sustaining stability while navigating regional and global power dynamics. Central Asian politics, especially Uzbekistan, are inextricably linked to the interests of major actors such as Russia and China, which have frequently backed despotic regimes in the region. Mirziyoyev’s administration must address long-standing challenges like as corruption, socioeconomic inequities, and geographical discrepancies. The diversification of the economy and the creation of job possibilities for the expanding youth population are urgent problems. Furthermore, genuine attempts to develop open dialogue, establish room for alternative views, and ensure transparent and fair electoral processes are required for any meaningful progress towards political reforms (Sharifli, 2023).
President Mirziyoyev easily won the recent general elections in Uzbekistan. However, he still confronts a number of obstacles, the first of which is the economy, which is still ailing, and Mirziyoyev will need to continue to enact reforms in order to improve people’s living standards. Second, Mirziyoyev has vowed to implement political reforms, but he will face opposition from the country’s powerful elite. Third, Uzbekistan borders several unstable nations, and Mirziyoyev will need to keep the country secure. Finally, Uzbekistan is an important player in Central Asia, and Mirziyoyev will have to manage the region’s complicated geopolitics. Furthermore, in addition to the task of reforms, President Mirziyoyev must contend with corruption, ethnic tensions, and religious fanaticism (Chaudhury, 2023).
The recent elections in Uzbekistan saw a high level of enthusiasm and public participation, but they also underscored the difficulties in implementing true democratic reforms. President Mirziyoyev’s third term is a watershed moment in Uzbekistan’s political history, with the delicate balance between authoritarian authority and reformist goals determining the country’s future. To accomplish long-term and substantial reform, Uzbekistan must address internal difficulties while carefully navigating its geopolitical position. As the world watches the changes in Uzbekistan, there is cautious optimism that the country would embrace the opportunity to evolve into a more inclusive and participatory democratic system, contributing to a stable and prosperous Central Asia on the global stage.
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