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Uzbekistan: Presidential Hopefuls Emerge As Election Date Announced

Uzbeks voted in 2002 to extend Karimov's term in office. Another such referendum may be in the works (AFP) September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek officials announced today that the country will hold its next presidential election on December 23, ending months of uncertainty about the vote.

Qochqor Togaev, a deputy head of the Uzbek Central Election Commission, confirmed the date of the election to RFE/RL.

Observers say incumbent President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, will try to stay in office -- even though the current constitution forbids him from seeking another term.

Election campaigning is due to start on September 21, and several candidates have already announced their intention to run for president.

An unregistered group, the Alliance of Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, earlier this year nominated three men by Internet for the top post. The three are Jahongir Shosalimov and Abdullo Tojiboy Ogli, from Tashkent, and Ahtam Shoymardonov, from the town of Chirchiq near the capital. All three are human-rights activists.

The other declared candidate is Suhbat Abdullaev, a professor and medical doctor from the western city of Khorazm.

They all have yet to submit their applications to the Central Election Commission. All four men claim they can easily gain enough support among the electorate to become registered as presidential candidates.

Under current legislation, an Uzbek citizen can be nominated for president either by a political party or an initiative group of 300 people. They also need to collect the signatures of 700,000 eligible voters and submit an application to the CEC.

The three human-rights activists protested last month against the requirements. They said that listing the names and personal information of an independent candidate's supporters could allow those people to be persecuted, and could thus prevent some potential candidates from running for president.One of them, Tojiboy Ogli, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that when collecting signatures, "I have to put information about the signatories' addresses, passport number, their names, and place of birth. This opens them up to the possibility of persecution."

Ineligible To Run

Some opposition groups have also said their candidates will vie for the presidency. The leaders of two opposition parties -- Abdurahim Polat of Birlik and Muhammad Solih of Erk -- told RFE/RL in recent months that they intend to run for president as well.

However, neither Polat nor Solih is technically eligible to run for the post. Current legislation requires that a candidate should have lived in Uzbekistan for at least 10 consecutive years prior to the election. Both men have lived in exile for more than a decade.

Muhammad Solih is running even though living in exile makes him technically ineligible

But Polat and Solih say they were forced to leave their homeland due to harassment and prosecution, and that therefore their eligibility should not be questioned.

Sanjar Umarov, a leader of another unregistered opposition group, Sunshine Uzbekistan, ended up in jail because of his presidential ambitions.

Umarov, a wealthy businessman with ties in the United States, is serving 7 1/2 years in prison on charges that Sunshine Uzbekistan says were fabricated after he criticized Karimov's government following the May 2005 killings in Andijon.

Umarov was convicted in March 2006 on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering. He is reportedly in poor health and not allowed visitors.

Nominees Under Threat

Observers say Karimov -- who has ruled the country with an iron fist for the past 18 years -- will not give up power voluntarily. Anyone challenging his authority or even expressing dissent has been brutally suppressed and has either ended up in exile, in jail, or dead.

Nominees for the presidential post say they have already been under government scrutiny and even attacks.

Candidate Shosalimov said his wife, Gulchehra, was detained and released by police in late January after receiving threats against her husband.

Abdullaev, a doctor by profession, sees little chance of defeating Karimov

Another candidate, Abdullaev, told RFE/RL that his daughter was recently attacked by a group of unknown women in a local market. He said he believes the act was part of the authorities' attempt to silence him.

Analysts say Karimov will attempt to remain in office either by amending the constitution or arranging a referendum in which people will "ask" him to continue leading the country. To date, Uzbek elections have never been recognized as "free and fair" by Western election monitors.

Abdullaev admits that he has no chance of winning in the polls against Karimov. "I have zero chance because Uzbekistan's election system is buffoonery. Everything, including the Central Election Commission, is in Karimov's hands. I can't be free in such political games. There will be political games and tricks anyway. There will be very serious attempts to prevent us from gaining the presidency," Abdullaev said.

So why do the candidates persist in running quixotic election campaigns? Abdullaev defends the undertaking, even if it has little chance of success. "Who knows, maybe it's good to be like Don Quixote in this kind of process. Of course, it will be difficult. But we have to try and overcome these difficulties. Someone has to be the first," Abdullaev said.

Abdullaev says that regardless of the outcome of his current attempts, the very fact that someone is challenging the incumbent president and openly criticizing his policies is important for Uzbek citizens, especially for the youth. "It will change their mindset," Abdullaev said.

Trying To Reach The Public

It is hard to estimate how many people in Uzbekistan know about Abdullaev and the other nominees for presidency.

Conducting independent surveys is virtually impossible in Uzbekistan. Local media remain tightly controlled by the authorities. It is not yet known whether the independent candidates will have access to Uzbek media during the campaign, as Uzbek law stipulates.

Foreign broadcasters like RFE/RL as well as the Internet remain the only avenues for expressing alternative views. But Internet penetration is low in the country, and web users are concentrated mostly in big cities. Some 60 percent of Uzbekistan's population lives in rural areas.

A random phone call to Tashkent's old town district brought this result: a woman on the line said she knew nothing of either an upcoming election or presidential candidates. But she was sure about one thing: she will not vote for Karimov in any case.

"Everything is getting more and more expensive. In bazaars, you can't even find vegetable oil. They sell old oil with an old expiration date. Everything is so expensive," the woman said. "We don't eat enough and stay half-hungry. Some days we can cook, but other days we go without a hot meal. How can I want such a person to stay [as president]? Of course I don't want that."

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

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