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Uzbekistan: Expected Low Turnout Reflects Widespread Hopelessness

Elections are intended to be a reflection of the will of the people. Parties might compete for seats in parliament or decide to boycott the vote. Experts might be critical or optimistic about the impact of a legislature. But normally it is voters who ultimately decide when they enter polling stations and cast their ballots. In Uzbekistan, however, voters are faced with limited choices, since opposition parties have been excluded from the 26 December parliamentary elections. Five pro-government parties are vying for 120 lower house seats in the Oliy Majlis, which is set to become bicameral. Uzbek citizens admit they know little about the polls, and many say they don't care about the results, since there is little faith that a new parliament can make a difference.

Prague, 23 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Low voter turnout in Uzbekistan's parliamentary elections will not surprise anyone, least of all Uzbek officials.

Most observers describe the Uzbek electorate as apathetic and ill informed. A group of voters who spoke to RFE/RL said they didn't know anything about the issues or the candidates.

"I don't know," said one man. "I am from a village."

"How can I know?" responded an old woman.

"I have no idea," confessed one young man.

"Well, I don't know. I can't speak on political affairs," said a young woman.

Sixty percent of Uzbekistan's 26 million people are under the age of 30. Madina and Bahodir are students from the capital Tashkent.

Madina explained why she won't be going to the polls on 26 December: "Frankly speaking, I don't know the candidates at all."

Bahodir complained that he never had a chance to learn anything about the candidates.
Uzbekistan recently amended its election law such that just 30 percent of registered voters must now turn out for the election to be declared valid.

"Unfortunately, I know nothing about the candidates because candidates running from the district where I live never campaigned," he said. "Obviously, we can't vote for someone we don't know."

Eighty-eight percent of Uzbeks are Muslim. Local and international right groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have accused the government of President Islam Karimov of discriminating against independent Muslims who practice their faith outside state-run mosques.

A woman from Tashkent explained why she does not intend to cast a ballot.

"We received ballots, but we are not going to vote because [the state] violates laws and regulations set by Allah," she said. "Therefore we will not go to the polling station."

Uzbekistan recently amended its election law. Only 30 percent of registered voters must now turn out for the election to be declared valid.

Independent Uzbek sociologist Bahodir Musaev said voter apathy was behind the change: "Well, you know, I am not sure if people will vote because there has been a lot of talk about boycotting the elections. In addition, the situation is very bad in the country. If the masses fear being punished for not voting or would be cheated somehow, then they may cast ballots. As you know, the bar was reduced recently. Now, if 30 percent of the electorate votes, the elections will be declared valid. This change means that the authorities are worried the people might not vote."

A 67-year-old man from Namangan said he will not vote. Like many others, he said he does not believe a new parliament can make any substantive changes because it lacks independence.

"There is going to be no change after the parliament becomes bicameral," he said. "Even if it has 10 houses, it could make no changes. It won't be able to protect the people's interests because it follows orders [from Karimov]."

Musaev agreed. He compared political parties in Uzbekistan to "puppets."

"How can the parliament play any significant role if all financial, economic, and political resources are in hands of the executive power -- the presidential administration and the president himself?" Musaev asked. "Parties are like puppets, with one puppeteer running them as he wishes, while the parliament has no power."

Others were critical of the professional qualifications of the deputies who get elected.

Jamoliddin Polat, a voter from Tashkent, said: "[For example], of 205 members of parliament, 203 support a bill, two others abstain. More than 90 percent of deputies support the bill. What does it mean? It means they either don't understand what the bill is about or don't care. We've always observed either of these situations. They don't pay attention. They just come and go."

Another Uzbek citizen, who did not want to give his name, agreed:

"Have you seen the deputies on television? They are useless people -- just like puppets, you know? Puppets," he said.

Even those voters who said they will go to the polls see no difference between the political platforms of the parties and candidates. A woman from Tashkent said she has watched candidates campaigning on television.

"On television, we see candidates from different parties," she said. "They speak about goals and promise to solve problems the people face. But you can see they don't believe what they say themselves because nothing depends on them."

The Ozod Ovoz rights organization reported that many voters in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan intend to boycott the elections in protest to the indifference that candidates have shown toward voters. They complain that many candidates did not show up at organized election meetings, while voters were forced by their employers to attend. In Tashkent, a group of retired people said they are not going to vote because of a government decision to demolish their houses.

The run-up to the 26 December Uzbek elections has attracted little interest from the international community either. Even less attention is expected.

Alain Deletroz, vice president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said the world will likely be focused on the repeat presidential runoff in Ukraine on 26 December.

"First of all, there will be huge interest in the elections in Ukraine," Deletroz said. "They are serious elections, and they will have significant effect on Ukraine's policy. While in Uzbekistan, with the exception of some experts like you and myself who are still interested in this country, no one will pay any attention to the polls since they are not going to be serious. All five registered parties have similar programs, and they are not willing to change even a bit of Karimov's policy."

Observers said there is little chance that voters in Uzbekistan will take the path chosen by pro-democracy forces in Ukraine or Georgia. They said there is a greater danger that the country might instead follow the example of neighboring Turkmenistan.

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

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