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Uzbekistan: Why Aren't Voters Electing A New President?

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo) (AFP) January 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- January 22 should have been a big day in Uzbekistan. It's the day that President Islam Karimov's term expired. But instead it passed virtually unnoticed -- at least by the broader public.

Instead of launching the country in a new direction, January 22 signaled that -- for the next 11 months at least -- it will be business as usual.

President Karimov was elected to his second -- presumably final -- five-year term seven years ago. A contested referendum two years later -- on January 27, 2002 -- extended his term from five to seven years. January 22 marked the end of that disputed seven-year term.

All Quiet

But Uzbek media made no mention of the expiration of Karimov's term. That is perhaps unsurprising, since critics would argue that Karimov has led Uzbekistan with an "iron fist" throughout its 15 years of independence.

The Uzbek state has a firm grip on the media, and leadership change does not appear high on its list.

But some -- like Shahida Yakyb, chairwoman of the Uzbek Initiative Group of London and a member of the Committee for the Salvation of Uzbekistan -- argue that the situation leaves the president in legal and constitutional limbo.

"From January 22...every single decree or law issued by the government and the president is illegitimate."

"From January 22 to December 23 -- when allegedly the elections in Uzbekistan are announced -- [Karimov] and his government are going to be totally illegitimate, and therefore every single decree or law issued by the government and the president is illegitimate as well," Yakyb said.

But the Uzbek government does not appear to regard the term's expiration as problematic.

Officials Nonplussed

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke with Bakhtiyor Mirboboev, the deputy chairman of Uzbekistan's Constitutional Court, to find out why.

"There is a decree by the [parliament] on this issue," Mirboboev said. "As you know, we had a referendum [on January 2002] that resulted in the extension of the president's term to seven years. After that, the [parliament] adopted a decree that answers the question about when the elections should be held. It says that the elections are held on the first Sunday of the [last 10 days] of December in the year that the president's term expires. So the elections will be held on the first Sunday of the [last 10 days] of December 2007 -- which is December 23, 2007. So that means the [parliament] decreed holding elections on December 23, 2007."

RFE/RL pressed Mirboboev on the specifics of the presidential election law that allow Karimov to remain in office.

"Karimov's term is not considered to be expired, and this is explained in the constitution," Mirboboev said. "If you look at Article 117, it says that the next presidential elections are to be held on the first Sunday of the [last 10 days] of December of the year when the [president's] term has expired."

Mirboboev suggested that parliament could clarify the situation.

RFE/RL contacted Sobir Jobarov, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs. "I cannot answer this question," Jobarov said. "Ask Bakhtiyor Aka [Mirboboev]."

Whence The Confusion

Some articles of the presidential election law were amended in 2002, providing for a presidential election at the end of December. As that date approaches, many might be waiting anxiously to see what President Karimov does.

Under the constitution, Karimov, who is nearly 69, is obliged to step down after two terms in office. But Karimov has twice extended his terms, through referendums in 1995 and 2002. He could conceivably seek to do so again, given his tight grip on the country.

Karimov could also seek to amend the constitution to allow for a third term -- or opt to change the language of the constitution to permit him to stay on until death. That was the case with the late Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died of heart failure in December.

Karimov could go a different route by following the example of Russia's Boris Yeltsin, who hand-picked Vladimir Putin to avoid a succession battle and -- critics argue -- protect himself from future prosecution.

As December draws closer Central Asians and outsiders will be watching Uzbekistan carefully. There have already been leadership changes in Kyrgyzstan, in March 2005, and Turkmenistan, which is in the process of formalizing a change of leadership.

But Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and borders each of the other four Central Asian states. So whatever changes occur in Uzbekistan will necessarily affect the entire region.

(Farruh Yusupov and Shukrat Bobobjonov of RFE/RL Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

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