Uzbekistan: Tashkent Voters Back Strongman as He Cruises to Victory
An unseasonal blizzard in Tashkent did not affect turnout during Uzbekistan’s presidential election on March 29, with incumbent strongman Islam Karimov galloping to victory in a one-horse race.
“I voted for Islam Karimov. He’s a good man,” said railway worker Rustam after casting his ballot (like other interviewees, he declined to supply his last name). “We know him and we don’t know who the others are.”
Rustam was summing up the mood prevailing among voters, who overwhelmingly say they back Karimov and know little about the other three candidates: Khatamzhon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov, and Akmal Saidov.
These stalking horses, widely believed to be standing in the election to create a semblance of competition, have effectively been campaigning for Karimov, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in findings released ahead of the vote.
The iron rule of the 77-year-old president – who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 – may come under fire in the West. But it wins praise at home among voters subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda praising their leader. “I voted for Karimov. He keeps a tight grip on things,” said pensioner Hassan approvingly.
Human rights campaigners have criticized the election for offering voters in Uzbekistan (where no genuine opposition parties exist and dissenters are routinely jailed) no real competition. They also charge that Karimov is flouting the constitution – which limits presidents to two terms of office – by standing for his fourth term.
Uzbek officials counter that he is entitled to stand, since the constitution has been amended since he was last elected; this, they argue, is effectively his first term. By this logic, Karimov could – if his health holds up – stay in power for 10 more years, by which time he would be 87.
The flow of voters to polling stations was steady on voting day in Tashkent, where there was the habitual heavy police presence but security was not perceptibly tighter than usual.
The Central Electoral Commission reported a high turnout nationally: It had hit 85 percent by 5 p.m. local time, three hours before polls closed. In this as in past elections, voters have been under pressure from their mahalla (neighborhood) committees – state-sponsored residents’ councils that control local affairs – to go to the polling stations to ensure a high turnout lends legitimacy to the result.
Some voters cast their ballots without even going to the polls: One man said on condition of anonymity that he had voted for his entire family.
The OSCE is fielding only a limited election observation mission, owing to “issues over conditions for the emergence of a genuine opposition and the conditions for campaigning, among others,” spokesman Thomas Rymer told EurasiaNet.org ahead of the vote.
Observers from the CIS have been more flattering – in keeping with tradition. The election is “fully in line with democratic principles,” said observer Lidiya Yermoshina, the head of the Belarusian Central Electoral Commission.
Her remarks were broadcast on Uzbekistan’s state TV the night before the vote, in an evening news bulletin that showed other international observers praising the fairness of the campaign.
State TV said the election was being held in an atmosphere of “openness, transparency, and fairness,” and repeated the mantra that the state propaganda machine has been drumming into voters throughout the campaign: that “stability” in Uzbekistan under Karimov’s long rule is an achievement to be prized. This message resonates with voters, who often cite it as their reason for favoring the incumbent.
The election results are due to be released on March 30. With no one in any doubt who will win, the only question is the size of the landslide that will lodge the septuagenarian strongman in office for another five years.