UZBEKISTAN: Parliamentary elections without the opposition
Vladimir Beron

According to Uzbekistan`s Central Election Commission, the runoffs for the December 26 elections for the 120-seat lower chamber of parliament were conducted successfully on January 9, registering over 80 percent voter participation. Voters cast their ballots for representatives in 58 districts, as the candidates in 62 districts were chosen in the first round. The newly elected parliament is expected to convene in mid-February.

Although the government of President Islam Karimov has hailed the parliamentary ballot as a success, international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the elections fell far short of internationally recognized standards, as three major opposition parties, including Erk, Ozod Dehqonlar and Birlik were excluded from the polling process. In fact, all five parties that took part in the ballot are pro-presidential. The Liberal-Democratic Party won the largest number of seats, followed by the People`s Democratic Party, the Fidokorlar National-Democratic Party, the National Renaissance Democratic Party, and the Adolat Social-Democratic Party.

The OSCE dispatched only a limited observer mission given that all of the opposition`s candidates were banned. According to the OSCE`s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the government failed to conduct a pluralistic, competitive and transparent ballot. In addition, large portions of the electorate lacked information about the candidates, and members of polling commissions marked or cast the ballots for some voters. Campaigning continued during the polling as well. For example, in a district for which the head of the gas department was competing, his representatives showed up at polling stations urging voters to cast ballots for their boss in exchange for a large supply of gas.

Instances of intimidation were also prevalent, especially against prominent opposition members. The leader of Birlik reported that she was not able to leave her house on the polling day because the area was blocked by people who were observing the premises. She said that she was afraid to leave the house because government agents would accuse her of some legal infraction, as they have in the past when police stopped the vehicle she was traveling in and claimed that it had run over someone. An independent human rights activist also reported that the area he resides in was blocked by cars occupied by people monitoring his residence, who followed him when he went to a polling station.

In contrast to the OSCE conclusions regarding the fairness of the elections, observers sent by Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) found no particular problems with the fact that the opposition was banned from the ballot. Instead, Vladimir Rushailo, the head of the CIS Executive Committee mission for monitoring the Uzbek elections praised the electoral process. He claimed that his commission was not mandated to review the policies of the Uzbek government. However, he commended the inclusion of a 30 percent quota for women, as well as the printing of ballots in Russian, Tajik, Kazakh and Karakalpak, even though only 13 of the 517 candidates belong to ethnic groups other than Uzbek. The head of the Russian Central Election Commission, following his visit to Tashkent, concluded that the Uzbek electorate was given a genuine choice in the ballot.

In retrospect, the latest elections for the lower house are expected to bring no practical changes to the political landscape in Uzbekistan, not only because of the manner in which they were conducted, but also because the Senate wields influence that is disproportionately high for an upper chamber of parliament. Some 16 members of the Senate are chosen directly by the president and the rest by local municipalities, which leaves the body inherently politicized. Karimov also enjoys a reserved seat in the Senate for life after he steps down from the presidency, which ensures him immunity from prosecution.

Furthermore, there is no reason to expect that the regime will come under pressure from the international community any time soon. Russia, the traditional power broker in the region, and the U.S. administration, which has made significant strides in positioning troops in Central Asia in recent years, have strategic interests that are reasonably well served by the Karimov presidency. Western powers have been allowed to deploy their forces in the South, which is vital for the allied operations against terrorists based in Afghanistan. The Uzbek foreign minister affirmed on December 28 the government`s continued support for the American-led war on terror and vowed to cooperate with the U.S. for the duration of its operations in Afghanistan. On January 13, the president endorsed the policy of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists, which is favored by the U.S.

The few voices of real criticism raised against the autocratic regime in Uzbekistan continue to come from domestic and international human rights groups, who focus the international spotlight on abuses against political opponents. On January 3, the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the Ezgulik human rights group issued a statement to call attention to the death of an Uzbek national after alleged torture in the hands of the authorities. The man had been serving a 17 year prison sentence for belonging to the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir. The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House urged the Uzbek government to set up a group of human rights activists to independently review the case.

Karimov`s ruthless clampdown on suspected opponents of the regime under the pretext of combating Islamic extremism continues unabated, and his policies are unlikely to change in the absence of strong pressure from the major powers.

Vladimir Beron is an international risk analyst.