There were a lot high expectations when Shavkat Mirziyoev became the president of Uzbekistan in 2016, replacing the autocratic Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoev made a lot of promises, while also pledging serious reforms and a fight against corruption. And while he has delivered on some of those promises, most of them have gone unfulfilled during his term in office.
Despite his lackluster record, Mirziyoev is seen as the overwhelming favorite in the October 24 managed election in which true opposition candidates were either not registered or pressured not to run.
New Face, Same Old Electoral Process
Karimov ruled Central Asia's most-populous country for a quarter of a century -- being reelected four times in elections found wholly undemocratic by international election monitors.
And despite hope that the election process might be more democratic under Mirziyoev, observers can't help noticing that this election looks a lot like the ones under Karimov.
To begin with, the campaign for the upcoming election has been largely absent from local media coverage.
And the five parties fielding candidates in this election are the exact same state-approved parties that have been involved in Uzbekistan's elections since 2009.
Despite Mirziyoev saying several times that he had no objections to the creation of opposition parties and their participation in elections, none of the three parties that were interested in having candidates in the presidential election was allowed to register.
In fact, all three opposition parties -- the Erk Democratic Party, Truth and Development (Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot), and the People’s Interest (Halq Manfaatlari) -- were pressured into halting their activities before official campaigning even started.
So Uzbekistan’s voters will only be able to cast their ballots for Bahrom Abduhalimov of the Adolat (Justice) party; Maksuda Borisova of the People’s Democratic Party; Nazrullo Oblomuradov of the Ecological Party; Alisher Qodirov of the National Revival Party; or Mirziyoev from the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU).
The LDPU was founded in November 2003 and since then has not only won the most seats in every parliamentary election but has also nominated the winning candidate for every presidential election.
Only recently was there even a spark of interest in the election campaign.
That came on October 14 when Qodirov -- who in June called for expelling all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from the country -- said he viewed remittances sent from abroad to be income and would tax them.
It was a shocking proposal. Millions of Uzbek citizens have gone abroad over the years as migrant laborers to find work since unemployment is so high in Uzbekistan. Millions of their family members back home could not have made ends meet without the money sent to them.
Qodirov’s statement was the equivalent of taking a dive in a boxing match as it would turn off most voters. Mirziyoev was quick to pounce on the opportunity, saying the next day that “one should never view helping a family as profitable and impose taxes.”
Though that was probably the most riveting moment in an otherwise barely noticeable campaign, some wonder whether it was staged specifically to generate a buzz among the electorate and boost Mirziyoev’s vote tally on election day.
Mirziyoev does seem to be genuinely popular with the majority of Uzbeks and would likely win an election even if opposition parties were allowed to compete -- especially considering the state's firm control of the media in Uzbekistan.
Mirziyoev is, surprisingly, different from Karimov -- Uzbekistan’s first and only president -- despite serving as his prime minister from 2003 to 2016 and fully enabling his predecessor's hard-line policies and intolerance of any opposition.
Those policies earned Karimov a reputation as a chronic rights abuser and enemy of the free press.
At no time during his 13 years as prime minister was there any hint that Mirziyoev was a reformer at heart who was just following orders.
But he did make some shrewd moves early on in his term that attracted the attention of Uzbeks and the international community.
Among them was the freeing of several dozen political prisoners, some of whom had languished in Uzbek prisons for two decades.
Mirziyoev also made improving ties with Uzbekistan’s neighbors a priority, much to the relief of those countries, all of which had endured periods of testy relations with Karimov’s government.
Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan, long isolated under Karimov, was open for business again and sent officials to countries in Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East to attract investors.
Western countries, in particular, were encouraged by Mirziyoev’s rhetoric of a kinder, gentler Uzbekistan and showed renewed interest in it as an important Central Asian country and hub for trade due to its central location in the region.
Mirziyoev has also enjoyed some domestic successes as well.
He spoke out against the use of forced labor in cotton fields and, while that has not been totally eradicated, the number of people ordered to work as volunteers has dropped significantly while wages have increased for those who pick Uzbekistan’s “white gold.”
Mirziyoev has also given support to the country's migrant laborers -- once criticized by Karimov as “lazy beggars” -- while lamenting that they could not find gainful employment in Uzbekistan, using this reality to vaguely chastise officials for not providing enough jobs.
But much of what Mirziyoev said he would do remains unfinished or has never been started.
His campaign for reelection is an example. When he was campaigning in Samarkand in late September, he promised free meals for schoolchildren.
While in Tashkent on October 19, Mirziyoev promised every "mahalla" (neighborhood) would receive huge sums of money for development.
Everywhere Mirziyoev goes he promises money, an end to the abusive practices of local officials, improvements in living conditions, and other benefits.
Yet these things have been slow to materialize and many in Uzbekistan are still waiting to see the changes Mirziyoev has promised.
In his first years as president, Mirziyoev went to neighboring states and made grandiose promises, like investing in Kyrgyzstan's and Tajikistan’s hydropower sectors or in Turkmenistan’s offshore oil and gas fields, all despite the fact Uzbekistan has little experience with such projects and little money to invest in foreign ventures.
So far, none of those things has happened.
Uzbekistan’s foreign debt was negligible when Mirziyoev became leader, but it has now ballooned to some $36 billion.
Much of that money has gone toward construction projects, but there are suspicions a large share of that has really gone into the hands of officials appointed by Mirziyoev. There are also questions about the many people who have been moved out of areas of new construction and not received adequate -- or in some cases any -- compensation for their demolished homes.
It seems apparent that not enough of that money went to repairing Uzbekistan’s aging infrastructure, as power outages were frequent last winter and it looks like that will be the case again this year.
Heard That Before
Much of Mirziyoev’s popularity among Uzbeks seems to be based on his promises for a better life in the future.
Such promises are reminiscent of other Central Asian leaders who sought greater public support by describing a better tomorrow for everyone.
Once the oil money started pouring in after the early years of economic stagnation following independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, often foretold of his country becoming one of the most industrial and prosperous nations in the world.
Programs in the late 1990s looked to 2020 and 2030 as the dates for these promised achievements, yet as of 2021, while conditions have noticeably improved for many in Kazakhstan, most of the goals set by Nazarbaev more than 20 years ago are still unrealized.
His family and friends, however, are listed as being among the richest people in the world.
Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, similarly promised to turn his country into a second Kuwait, and when Niyazov died and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became president, he, too, pledged to turn Turkmenistan into a wealthy nation.
But Turkmenistan’s economic situation is currently worse than it has ever been, while Berdymukhammedov’s relatives are also rumored to be fabulously wealthy.
Central Asian precedent tends to show that once leaders are firmly entrenched in power, their promises of reforms and attention to improving conditions for citizens wanes as their (and their inner circle’s) appetites for enrichment grow.
Should Mirziyoev win the October 24 presidential election, as seems quite likely, he would start his second and constitutionally final term in office.
Having portrayed himself as a reformer, if Mirziyoev goes the route of other Central Asian leaders and decides to ignore a two-term limit, it would be impossible for him to claim such a title.
But more importantly, it would signify he has cemented his rule and, at that point, the need for reforms would probably be subordinate to thoughts of regime preservation while those close to him focus on gaining wealth.