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Uzbekistan: President Faces Election Challenge In Name Only

Islam Karimov has led the country with a tight fist for 18 years (epa) Uzbekistan holds a presidential election on December 23 in which incumbent Islam Karimov's victory appears a foregone conclusion despite two previous terms that many think should disqualify him.

Karimov, who turns 70 in January and has led the country for 18 years, is running against what can only be described as nominal challengers. The three other candidates who registered with the election commission are regarded as Karimov loyalists and have praised him publicly.

Few outside observers have any illusions about the degree of choice facing Uzbek voters, particularly since opposition parties are not allowed to participate.

The legal basis for Karimov's candidacy remains unclear, since the Uzbek constitution bars a president from serving more than two terms but authorities already ignored that limit when they approved his bid in mid-November. Karimov, a former communist party boss, has already extended his term in office twice through referendums, in 1995 and 2002.

The OSCE's election-monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said in a recent report that "neither the [Uzbek] election administration nor the representatives of the four candidates perceive any legal ambiguity" regarding Karimov’s eligibility.

ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir noted some of other findings of the organization's limited election observation mission (LEOM) that visited Uzbekistan and issued the interim report earlier this month. "The election campaign and the coverage in local media have been very low key and non-confrontational," Gunnarsdottir said. "There have been no debates between the candidates, and very low-key meetings with voters. And some of the people we met have expressed the view that the candidates are not very well known and there are people who have questioned the existence of choice."

Uzbek authorities seem to have done their best to keep the election campaign low-key, although all four candidates, including Karimov, have traveled to various regions of Uzbekistan for meetings with potential voters. Karimov's gatherings have been held under tight security. "All the movement of passersby and cars were stopped inside the city of Jizzakh [when Karimov visited]," one resident told RFE/RL. "The Interior Ministry and National Security Committee officers surrounded all locations while traffic police prevented any movement inside the city. And only specially designated people were allowed to a meeting [with Karimov]."

Security measures were reportedly stepped up in the capital, Tashkent, and in other regions in the run-up to the list. Citizens in Tashkent say there are more police in the streets than ever. Opposition and human rights activists have told RFE/RL that the number of secret service officers who usually follow them increased and checks were strengthened in recent weeks.

In one of the bluntest moves to silence an outspoken critic of Karimov's administration, authorities arrested poet Yusuf Juma shortly after he held a protest in his native Bukhara and demanded Karimov's resignation on December 8. Juma's wife and two grandchildren reportedly managed to escape when police assaulted their house. Their whereabouts are unknown.

In a December 13 report, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, a network of civil-society organizations, said Uzbekistan is a "frightening place for activists" where critical voices have been "gagged." "In the lead-up to [the] elections, there has been an unprecedented amount of repression," said Clare Doube, who manages CIVICUS's Civil Society Watch program. "Citizens are regularly monitored and threatened. The media is strictly censored. And independent civil society has been systematically eliminated from the country."

She added that CIVICUS has been "concerned" by research that "has shown that the situation in Uzbekistan is dire when it comes to space for civil society." Doube said that "particularly in the context of the upcoming election, there needs to be a space for civil society to function freely, and our research has found that that is certainly not the case in the current situation in Uzbekistan."

Foreign journalists who requested accreditation were reportedly permitted to stay in Uzbekistan for just one week, from December 20-27. An independent regional news website,, reported on December 18 that private hotels in Samarkand received instructions from authorities not to receive guests until January 5 and send all clients to state-owned hotels. speculated that the order was based on "authorities' fear of not controlling journalists and independent observers" coming to Uzbekistan days to cover and monitor the election.

The OSCE delegates who traveled to Uzbekistan earlier this month were also given delayed visas that prevented them from undertaking a needs assessment mission. The Uzbek authorities also limited both the number of OSCE observers, to 30, and the duration of their stay.

Western election monitors have never recognized an Uzbek parliamentary or presidential election as free and fair or up to international standards.

Erica Barks-Ruggles, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, suggested to RFE/RL in mid-December that the Uzbek election campaign had already failed to meet international standards.

"I do not think that the outcome of the election is very much in doubt and I don't think that anybody would say that this election process has met international standards," Barks-Ruggles said. "So regardless of what the day of the vote looks like, the process has not met international standards. We look forward to a day when Uzbekistan will have free, fair, open, transparent, inclusive elections. But this election is not going to be that."

Russian-led CIS observers regularly recognize elections in Uzbekistan as fair and open, however. They are likely to endorse the official results of the polls.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Tashkent and an outspoken critic of the Karimov government, told RFE/RL that Karimov's reelection is likely to deepen Uzbekistan's isolation, which began after the Andijon bloodshed in May 2005 when government troops clashed with peaceful protesters and killed hundreds. "Karimov is a particularly brutal dictator, not someone that most governments would want to be associated with, so I think continuing isolation from the West in a political sense will continue and be reinforced by his remaining president more or less permanently," Murray said. "But -- I would not want to overemphasize that too much -- Western governments will continue to do economic business with Uzbekistan. And, of course, Karimov will calculate that he does not need the West as long as he has strong support of Russia and of China. And with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin also looking for ways effectively to stay in power, no doubt that will continue."

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

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