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Uzbekistan: Government Allows Trappings Of Multiparty Democracy

This is the third in a four-part series on Central Asia's upcoming elections. In Uzbekistan, the electoral mechanics and rules seem to meet with the OSCE's approval, even if some say the country is still far from the goal of true multiparty democracy.

Prague, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbeks are expected to go to the polls in November or December in the first parliamentary vote in the country in five years, but there is little reason to believe that significant change will result.

The government of President Islam Karimov has approved all the five political parties that will participate in the polls and their platforms are similar.

The exact date for the vote is not yet known, but election officials say they'll announce details by the first of September. They say the delay is not indicative of any serious problems but has more to do with the mechanics of dividing the country into electoral districts and taking a count of eligible voters.

In addition to the five registered parties, individuals having the backing of enough eligible voters can also run. The Central Election Commission says as many as seven or eight candidates may vie for some seats.

On the surface, the vote has the look of genuine democracy.

The electoral commission's press spokesman Anwar Sadulayev told RFE/RL that a team of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently visited the country and were pleased by what they saw:

"OSCE representatives visited us. We reviewed our laws and both sides acknowledged that our laws meet international standards. Right now, the parliament is discussing the OSCE's suggestions to make some changes."

Vladimir Makarov is the OSCE's representative for human rights in Central Asia was a member of the team that visited Uzbekistan. He says he's optimistic about the elections in Uzbekistan. He didn't say Uzbek laws totally conform to OSCE standards for fair and free elections. But he also didn't mention any major problems. The OSCE will decide soon whether to send an observer team to Uzbekistan for the elections.

While preparations for polls get adequate marks for meeting OSCE standards, at least one opposition party is questioning whether any of the five parties contesting the vote represent a genuine alternative to the government.

Otanazar Oripov is the first secretary of Uzbekistan's banned opposition political party Erk. He says that since the government itself created and approved the five main parties, the election can't be considered truly "multi-party."

Erk -- a popular movement that supports democratic reform -- was refused registration as a party in 1992. Its leader, Mohammed Solih, was later tied to radical Islamic groups, leading to the party's formal prohibition.

The five parties taking part in the elections include the ruling People's Democratic Party (Halq Demokratik Partiyasi). Other parties are the Homeland Progress Party (Watan Tarakkiyoti Partiyasi), the Justice Social Democratic Party (Adolat Sotsiyal Demokratik Partiyasi), the Self-Sacrificers' Party (Fidokorlar Demokratik Partiyasi) and the National Renaissance Party (Milliy Tiklanish Partiyasi).

-- The People's Democratic Party, the former Communist party, was the first party to be registered in independent Uzbekistan. It remains the biggest party and the favorite in elections, despite President Islam Karimov having distanced himself from the party in 1994.

First Executive Secretary Abdulhafiz Jalalov claims the party has 500,000 members. More than 3,000 of them are officials on local councils. In the 150-member Oil Majlis (parliament), the party holds 70 seats. The party has its own newspaper, which is already running campaign stories.

-- The Homeland Progress Party is difficult to classify other than by saying it appeals to intellectuals. Party leader Akhtam Tursunov said party members are busy explaining their campaign platform and "asking people to vote." The party has established youth centers where young people can meet with officials. More than half of Uzbekistan's population of 24 million is under 30 years of age.

Tursunov's description of his party's likely candidates indicates Homeland is looking to younger voters:

"We will pick dedicated people who, in the next century, can help to make our society more democratic, improve peoples lives and ensure the people can live in peace."

-- Turgunpulat Daminov is the leader of the Justice Social Democratic Party, created just after the 1994 elections. He said his group is also now campaigning throughout Uzbekistan. Daminov wouldn't comment on what his party stands for but says a working group is piecing together a party platform. Much of the platform that exists is based on plans prepared by current President Islam Karimov.

-- The Self-Sacrificers Party -- created late last year -- is using tactics similar to those of the ruling People's Democratic Party. Activists are out in towns and villages holding meetings and talking with voters. Party leader Erkin Norbutayev said the group is targeting the youth vote, but he also suggested that the Self-Sacrificers Party is adopting a long-term strategy by arranging loans and access to higher education for young people who show business potential.

The party has also spoken with tax authorities and banks in order to set up programs to help talented young people. In the short term, according to Norbutayev, the party hopes to "fill the [country's] ideological vacuum."

-- Ibrohim Ghafurov is the head of the National Renaissance Party. He says it's pointless to talk about the vote until officials set a date. He urged Uzbek voters to be "patient."

Akram Faisullo and Yakub Turan of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.