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Uzbekistan: No Sign Of What Should Be An Imminent Presidential Election

President Islam Karimov (file photo) (epa) July 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Less than six months before the presumed end of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's final term, there has been no official announcement of any upcoming vote and no campaigning of any sort.

Many potential voters appear to know nothing of any presidential election, while observers doubt that any polls will take place.

The hallmarks of modern elections include candidates announcing their programs and parties their platforms, meetings with voters, and public debates. They may also include mutual accusations and scandals, as well as concessions and alliances. It is a familiar process among democratic countries -- and can even be seen in some places where political leaders feign democracy.

But the situation is very different in Uzbekistan. A 38-year-old entrepreneur in Tashkent, Rustam, was among those who told RFE/RL recently that they have seen no sign of a looming election.

"No, we have no information -- nothing," he said.

Jahongir, a 19-year-old Tashkent-based student, says he is interested in politics and is eager to cast a vote in his first election of voting age.

"Unfortunately, there is no information on elections right now," he told RFE/RL. "I just know that I can participate in elections, since I turned 18."

Legislation In Place

The constitution places a limit of two terms on the head of state. Legislators in the Oliy Majlis, the Uzbek parliament, plainly established the date of the next direct presidential election.

A member of the Uzbek Constitutional Court, Bakhtiyor Mirboboyev, said as much in an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

"There is a resolution by the Oliy Majlis that answers the question of when the presidential election should be held," Mirboboyev said. "It states that the presidential election should be held on the last Sunday of December 2007. That [Sunday] falls on December 23. So, there is a resolution by the Oliy Majlis stating that the election should be held on December 23."

Current law says the date of any upcoming election should be announced and campaigning should begin six months prior to the balloting.

Uzbek officials have made no such announcement.

"There has been no preparation or anything concrete about elections," said Qochqor Toghayev, a member of the Central Electoral Commission.

Reading Tea Leaves

The country's state-controlled media remain silent on the topic, although they have widely covered the president's recent trips to Uzbekistan's regions.

Some independent websites have interpreted Karimov's regional visits as the start of a campaign.

Independent observers speculate about possible political scenarios. Many say Karimov -- who has ruled the country since 1989, initially as first secretary of the Communist Party and later as president of an independent state -- will try to hold on to power (see biography).

Several former Soviet republics -- namely Azerbaijan and Russia -- have seen peaceful transfers of power to individuals groomed for the presidency and loyal to their predecessors.

It is unclear whether Karimov might anoint anyone -- Uzbek politics is a closed circle, and no confidant or possible successor appears to have emerged.

Other possible options for Karimov include amending the constitution or other legislative sleight of hand, or organizing a referendum in which the public might ask him to stay in office.

'Pre-election' Squabbling

While those who are aware of the election requirement might seem bewildered, opposition groups appear to have embarked on pre-election squabbles in another realm -- the Internet.

Scores of Internet articles include accusations and counteraccusations among members of the Birlik (Unity), Erk (Freedom), and other groupings, as well as opposition-leaning rights activists.

They look like attempts to divide up the bearskin before the bear is shot, and the rancor highlights deeply rooted disagreements within the Uzbek opposition.

Some opposition parties have already announced their intention to vie for the presidency.

Ismoil Dadajonov, a Birlik leader, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that his party's decision to take part in the process still stands.

"At an extended meeting of the central council of the Birlik party, we decided to participate in the presidential election," Dadajonov said. "That decision remains in effect. The Birlik party will participate in the election."

Erk announced its candidate -- exiled leader Muhammad Solih -- more than a year ago. But speaking to RFE/RL on July 3, Solih was more circumspect about his or his party's plans.

"Our position will become clear after the announcement," Solih said. "Will Karimov hold this election or not? If yes, will the opposition participate in the election? What are the conditions if the opposition participates? Who is considered the 'opposition' in Karimov's opinion? All these questions will directly affect our position and declaration. Therefore we haven't announced our position on the elections yet."

Or A Done Deal?

While even the opposition awaits signs of Karimov's plans, analysts express doubts about any opposition candidate's ability to successfully challenge Karimov.

The absence of any legal foundation for opposition activities and the lack of a political forum for dissent make it all but impossible for an unregistered opposition figure to run for president.

Opposition members claim their candidates would win sufficient voter support if the elections were free and fair.

But a Tashkent-based student who was asked by RFE/RL about the political opposition, Jahongir, tells a different story. He says he has never heard of Erk, Birlik, or other groups that Karimov's administration has sought to marginalize by banning or refusing to register.

"Frankly speaking, what you are saying is news to me," Jahongir said. "We know about three or four parties we have in Uzbekistan right now. We don't know anything about parties that were [active] in the 1980s and 1990s."