The victory of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan’s special presidential election December 4 was never in doubt, but the Soviet-style scale of his winning margin indicates that hopes of pending political reform may have been premature.
Preliminary results announced by election officials December 5 show Mirziyoyev winning 88.6 percent of votes cast. That is only slightly less than the 90 percent gained by the late Islam Karimov in 2015. Karimov died during this past summer.
While Uzbek state media have hailed the election as a breakthrough in raising democratic standards, observers have been more sanguine.
“The dominant position of state actors and limits on fundamental freedoms undermine political pluralism and led to a campaign devoid of genuine competition,” observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted in a preliminary post-election report. “Media covered the election in a highly restrictive and controlled environment, and the dissemination of a state-defined narrative did not allow voters to receive an alternative viewpoint.”
With Mirziyoyev enjoying the advantage of incumbency as acting president since Karimov’s death, his victory in the special election was largely assured. But the sizeable reported turnout figures suggest that authorities in Tashkent remain eager to confer upon Mirziyoyev’s administration an indisputable sense of legitimacy. Election officials said 87.8 percent of registered voters cast their ballot, only slightly down from 91 percent in 2015.
The government did indeed throw all its effort behind getting as many people to polling stations as possible. Polls opened at 6 am and travel on all public transportation was made free of charge for the day. Nature did its bit too. Weather was chilly in some parts of the country, but the thermometer stood at an unseasonably balmy 18 degrees Celsius (65 degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital, Tashkent.
After voting, many citizens headed to the market, where they could buy basic groceries like potatoes, eggs and cooking oil at subsidized prices. Large crowds could be seen scrambling to buy goods, and some lost patience over long waits and went home.
Polling station Number 510 in Tashkent was teeming with people by mid-morning. Vote organizers made a show of insisting that voters had to present their documents before voting and that nobody could cast their ballot on behalf of relatives.
One voter, 61-year old Hamid, said that a polling station worker refused to give him additional three voting slips for his wife, son and daughter-in-law. “I told her that I wanted to vote for the rest of the family, like I always do. But the girl refused and said they should come in person, because international monitors are keeping a close eye on things this time,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
For all those apparent precautions, the OSCE team noted that there were cases of ballot box stuffing, widespread proxy voting and irregularities during counting.
“Voting was assessed negatively in 12 per cent of observations, with observers noting serious irregularities inconsistent with national legislation and OSCE commitments, including proxy voting and indications of ballot box stuffing,” the OSCE report said. “Observers assessed counting negatively in 46 of 77 cases. Reconciliation procedures were not followed in more than half of polling stations observed.”
On election day, Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, or UzLiDeP predicted that their candidate would get no less than 80 percent of the vote — selling their man short as it turned out.
Commenting on the pre-election environment, political analyst Rafael Sattarov described the vote as colorful, well-organized and free of the mood of paranoia that normally accompanies such events. But he cautioned before the vote to pay close attention to the results and what they would signify.
“By all appearances, he will get 80 percent, but for the sake of his image, they need to be more modest, and give him 60-70 percent. Otherwise he is going to be seriously mocked by international organizations,” Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org.
After the result came through, Sattarov expressed his dismay.
“Shameful. It means the level of authoritarianism will not be dropping and we should not expect it to happen in future,” he said.
Ahead of the election, there were some signs that a slight change in approach might be in the offing. Campaigning was anemic, but visible all the same. And in an important break with tradition, Mirziyoyev’s three place-holder rivals were afforded coverage on state television.
Uzbek media framed the election as a vote for the country’s “bright future” — a subtle implication at a portended change of direction from the stiflingly isolationist and centrist policies of Karimov.
In another eye-catching development, Mirziyoyev turned up to vote with his extended family, marking the first time they have been seen by the Uzbek public. Along with the newly elected president was his wife, Ziroatkhon Hoshimova, two daughters, Shahnoza and Saida, and their husbands Oybek and Otabek. Another three young children — two boys and a girl — are shown in images posted on social media.
A curious development on election day was the unexpected public appearance of Salim Abduvaliev — a man described in some quarters as a successful entrepreneur and informal authority, who was also characterized by leaked US diplomatic cables as a “crime boss.” After casting his vote, Abduvaliev posted a picture online as he sat at home wearing a t-shirt bearing an image of Mirziyoyev and the slogan — “My President.”
A similar public display would have been inconceivable in Karimov’s time and may suggest that big players in Uzbekistan’s informal economy feel they may have the authority to flex their muscles under Uzbekistan’s new regime.
Mirziyoyev’s formal inauguration is expected to take place before the end of the year. Yet, as of December 5, no date had been set.