ZOiS Spotlight 1/2020

“New Uzbekistan, new elections”?

by Beate Eschment 08/01/2020
Voters at a polling station in Tashkent on 22 December 2019. © imago images / Xinhua imago images / Xinhua

On 22 December 2019, parliamentary elections were held in Uzbekistan – the first since the country’s reformist President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took power. With “new Uzbekistan, new elections” as the slogan chosen by Tashkent’s officials, the elections were promoted as a key element of the modernisation agenda. But did they live up to this claim?

Elections in a changed context

Elections to Uzbekistan’s Parliament took place on a regular basis under Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev’s longstanding authoritarian predecessor, with the involvement of the four officially registered parties, none of which, of course, constituted anything resembling an opposition. [1] The candidates were hand-picked and the President’s party invariably won a majority of votes cast, thanks to a measure of more or less gentle persuasion. The resulting Parliament displayed no initiative of its own; its role was merely to rubberstamp the President’s proposals. In that sense, Parliament itself and the process of electing it are likely to have had little real significance for voters.

In 2019, however, the elections took place in a changed context. Since 2017, Mirziyoyev has been attempting to liberalise and modernise Uzbekistan by pushing through a programme of political, economic and administrative reforms. International reactions to his efforts have been mixed: while human rights observers are inclined to be critical, the British “Economist” magazine chose Uzbekistan two weeks ago as the recipient of its 2019 Country of the Year award in recognition of its rapid progress on building democracy. And for the first time, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) sent a full observation mission to monitor Uzbekistan’s parliamentary elections. This in itself can be viewed as an accolade: previous elections in Uzbekistan were only observed to a limited extent as the fundamental preconditions for free and fair elections were absent.

The decision to deploy a full observation mission attests, not least, to a series of improvements in electoral law, including aspects of fundamental importance for fair elections such as constituencies with approximately equal numbers of voters and a single (electronic) voter register. As no new parties have been formed in recent years and the existing parties are unchanged in terms of their key figures and policy agendas, there is still no opposition party to vote for. The Ecological Party, first registered in 2019, evolved from the Ecological Movement which had previously sent directly elected Members to Parliament. So while voters in almost every constituency had candidates from five parties to choose from, this can hardly be construed as an expression of pluralism.

Little tangible progress

Like all its predecessors, the five-week “election campaign” – despite some degree of liberalisation – was undermined by the lack of independent media coverage and freedom of expression, both of which are fundamental to vibrant political debate. In rural areas in particular, the forthcoming elections appeared to go largely unnoticed, evident from the absence of any election posters, for example. The idea of making genuine efforts to garner voters’ support appeared to be alien to candidates and parties alike. For many observers, however, the debates involving candidates from the various parties, held for the first time and broadcast on television, were the real highlight. Although all candidates refrained from voicing any criticism of the government, let alone the President, there were some tentative signs of direct political debate. Reports emphasise the controversial discussions of the opportunities and risks of accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and labour migration issues.

On polling day, it became apparent that improvements to electoral law were not necessarily a guarantee of compliance with this legislation. The Central Election Commission and especially the ODIHR observers reported numerous irregularities, including multiple voting and local functionaries’ interference with the electoral process.

On 5 January 2020, a second round of elections was held in 25 constituencies where no candidate had secured a majority of votes on 22 December. The allocation of seats in this Parliament, compared with its predecessor, remains largely unchanged. As before, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party leads the field by a considerable margin. However, at 71.1 per cent (62.8 per cent in the second ballot), turnout among the country’s 20.5 million voters reached an all-time low. The average age of MPs is more or less the same as before, but the number of female Members has doubled from 24 to 48.

Despite some efforts, then, little tangible progress can be discerned. In that sense, these “new elections” are symptomatic of the stage reached in the “new Uzbekistan” project itself, although not in the way that the government, with its election slogan, had intended.

Towards a “new Uzbekistan” – what could happen now?

For the past three years, Uzbekistan has been in an administrative, economic and social modernisation and liberalisation process, which, while not authoritarian, was nonetheless initiated and is controlled from the top. The difficulties in implementing this fundamentally problematic approach are apparent from the frequent reports about hokims (governors) of the country’s territorial administrations who, like during the Karimov era, set themselves above the law. However, other reports of measures adopted by the government itself show that it repeatedly falls short of the standards it has set itself, especially in the way it deals with those who think differently. After so many years of dictatorship, these inconsistencies and the legacies of the past prevent the public from developing any real trust in the present government and its reforms, despite official assertions that these reforms are irreversible.

The possible formation of opposition parties is currently under discussion in Tashkent, and this is generally a positive sign. But if such parties are to have any credibility, they cannot be formed by order from the top. All the government can do is to create the right conditions; the initiative must come from the public. Will the people of Uzbekistan seize their opportunity? That remains to be seen. Only then will it be apparent whether the government is serious in its intention to liberalise the country and is genuinely on course towards a “new Uzbekistan”.

[1] Uzbekistan has a bicameral parliament comprising the Senate, elected by the country’s regional parliaments, and the Legislative Chamber, elected by the public. For the sake of simplicity, the term “Parliament” in this text means the Legislative Chamber.

Beate Eschment is a Central Asia expert and researcher at ZOiS. Her current research focuses on identity formation and interest representation among national minorities in Kazakhstan.