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Uzbekistan: Elections Open And Transparent, But Not Free and Fair?

Uzbekistan is set to hold parliamentary elections on 26 December, but it's certain to be a one-sided affair. Opposition parties are not taking part directly in the elections and are urging a boycott by voters, who for their part seem to care little about the upcoming event. Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent a "limited mission" to observe the polls, in which five pro-government parties will vie for 120 lower-house seats in the Oliy Majlis or parliament, which is set to become bicameral. Representatives from the CIS, including Russia and Tajikistan, will also monitor the vote.

Prague, 22 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There's unlikely to be even a whiff of fraud about Uzbekistan's parliamentary polls as authorities have simply barred opposition parties from taking part.

All five parties competing for seats in the lower-house Legislative Assembly have publicly expressed support for President Islam Karimov. They include the People's Democratic Party, the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, Milliy Tiklanish (National Renaissance), Fidokorlar (Self-Sacrificers), and the Liberal Democratic Party.

Together with a few citizens' groups, the parties will field 517 candidates.

The Justice Ministry, however, has rejected election registration applications from the three main opposition parties -- Erk (Freedom), Birlik (Unity), and Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants).

Nonetheless, Karimov vowed the polls would be free and fair during an address on 2 December to the last session of the Oliy Majlis. "The forthcoming elections should, primarily, be fully in line with the principles envisaged in the constitution, the election laws and regulations. The elections must be unbiased and fair and should be held in a free, transparent and open way, without any pressure or influence from the outside. In a word, they must demonstrate our electorate's free will. I think that all of you will support me on this, and we all are responsible for this," Karimov said.

But Western observers say Uzbek authorities have already succeeded in setting the stage for unfair elections.

Kimmo Kiljunen, a member of the Finnish parliament and former vice president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, told RFE/RL: "To organize elections which are not free and fair, it's not typical that you are manipulating the election results technically. What is most typical -- and I have been in very many election observation processes -- is that you create the pre-climate, the election climate for the election campaign, [to be] unfair. That the media is biased, and that you might in many cases eliminate candidates which are somewhat opposing the government. This is clearly the situation where you might have 'free' but not fair elections."
"Even expressing a desire to participate in elections dictated by the government amounts to legitimizing the government and the vote. It means betrayal of the opposition's goals and ideas of democracy."

Erk and the Free Peasants are urging voters and the international community to boycott the polls, saying the presence of international observers would give Uzbek authorities the grounds for claiming the elections to be legitimate.

Erk's leader-in-exile, Mukhammad Solih, told RFE/RL: "In the current situation, the only way we can and have to choose is boycotting the elections. Because even expressing a desire to participate in elections dictated by the government amounts to legitimizing the government and the vote. It means betrayal of the opposition's goals and ideas of democracy."

Nigora Hidoyatova, head of the Free Peasants party, was the first to call on foreign leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, to boycott the elections. Despite the boycott, she said her party will continue to work with potential Uzbek voters. "No, we will stir the masses to greater activity in order to involve them to politics," she said. "And we will also raise awareness of our people."

The Birlik opposition party, however, is not taking part in the boycott. Rather, its members decided to register as candidates from citizens' groups and also to monitor the elections.

The party's U.S.-based leader, Abdurahim Polat, said that a boycott is only possible in a free country with a strong civil society and independent media, because only then could the boycott influence public opinion.

Polat said that if elected, Birlik members are going to raise important issues in the new parliament. "The main issue is an economic one, since the economic situation of the Uzbek people is getting worse," he said. "But at present, no economic reforms are possible since the whole economy is chained to the political system. No progress is possible without changing this system, without creating a real legislature and independent judiciary."

The OSCE has sent a "limited mission of observers" to monitor the elections. But groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) have argued against sending any kind of international observers.

In a letter to the OSCE last October, HRW Executive Director Holly Cartner said there are no grounds for fair polls in Uzbekistan, where "opposition political parties cannot function without fear of interference, harassment, confiscation of materials, and detention and ill-treatment."

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told RFE/RL it is too early to comment on the issue. "We will have a small observation [team] in Uzbekistan. We have a group of 21 observers in Uzbekistan at the moment," she said. "They have been there since the beginning of December, but I think that we should just wait and see how elections day goes on [26 December before commenting further]."

Unlike the OSCE, Vladimir Rushailo was ready to comment after his arrival in Tashkent last month. Rushailo heads the CIS Executive Committee mission, which will monitor the Uzbek polls.

Asked about the election ban on opposition parties, Rushailo told a news conference on 30 November that the mission did not intend to review the decisions of Uzbek officials.

Rushailo expressed satisfaction with the preparation process and praised the introduction of a 30 percent quota for women candidates. He also said he was pleased that ballots are published in Uzbek as well as in Russian, Karakalpak, Tajik, and Kazakh.

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, head of Russia's Central Election Commission (TsIK), also visited Tashkent in mid-December and concluded that the Uzbek voters had a genuine choice since there are at least four candidates for every available seat. The TsIK as well as the State Duma will have observers among the 70 CIS representatives monitoring the Uzbek vote.

However, both Rushailo and Veshnyakov failed to note that of the 517 candidates, only 13 are non-Uzbeks. Six Russians, four Tajiks, and three Kazakhs are registered but observers say they have little chance of being elected.

Tashkent-based independent sociologist Bahodir Musaev said the Russian mission is in Tashkent to help the Uzbek government. "In my opinion, [Russian] political experts came to help [Uzbek] officials prevent major errors and not anger voters, because the current situation is very hard in the country," he said. "There is a strong social tension."

Russia is one country Tashkent can expect assistance from. The United States is another. Washington criticized the 1999 parliamentary polls, but Uzbekistan has since become a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Paul Jones, the U.S. envoy to the OSCE, said on 16 December that the United States hopes the elections will be free and transparent. But he added in the statement: "We also note with regret that no truly independent opposition candidates will be taking part in these elections, a development unfortunately calling into question whether the elections will be truly competitive."

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

[For more RFE/RL coverage and analysis of the 26 December parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan, click here.]

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