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Uzbekistan: Opposition Candidate Is No Rival

President Islam Karimov is the only leader Uzbekistan has known since the country became independent in 1991, and he is widely expected to win re-election next January. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that, so far, Karimov's only competition is hardly an arch-rival -- it is a candidate from his own former political party.

Prague, 12 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Islam Karimov has been president of Uzbekistan since the country became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the eight years since then, he has earned a reputation as a leader who tolerates no opposition. Karimov has not yet officially declared his presumed intention to run for re-election in January, but most observers expect him to run and to win.

But for the election to be perceived as democratic, he cannot run unopposed. This past weekend, a rival candidate was put forward from a seemingly unlikely source -- Karimov's original post-independence political party.

Last Friday in Tashkent, the People's Democratic Party (Halq Demokratik Partiyasi) held its third party congress, at which discussion of parliamentary candidates was expected. Instead, the party announced a candidate for the presidency -- First Secretary Abdulhafiz Jalalov.

The 52-year-old Jalalov is director of the philosophy and law department at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. A relative unknown with little chance of winning, Jalalov also comes from a party that is unlikely to seriously oppose the president.

The party, the People's Democratic Party, is the successor to the old Communist Party, and was formerly headed by Karimov, who was the guiding force of the party when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. And the party forwarded Karimov as a candidate for the 1992 presidential election.

That was the only presidential election independent Uzbekistan has held, as in 1995 a national referendum gave Karimov a five-year extension in office. The year before, Karimov had left the party, saying it was inappropriate for a president to head a political party.

One high party official, Asliddin Rustamov, had some kind words for Karimov on Saturday when the surprise announcement was made.

"Karimov played a big role in the party and we cannot forget his work for the People's Democratic Party. But the party has adopted a new program with many changes."

But Rustamov also hinted that Uzbeks need a better standard of living.

"We are not against the policies of the president but we want more democracy and this is the main policy of our party, to give better jobs and better lives to the people. The main point of our policy is just to work for the people."

Those words could be considered a mild criticism of the regime. But many observers suspect that the criticism is just for show.

Elections in post-Soviet Central Asia went nearly unnoticed in the first several years after independence, but that is no longer the case. Earlier this year, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe criticized the presidential election in Kazakhstan as unfair, and it voiced similar criticisms again yesterday about Sunday's parliamentary elections there. Countries with business interests in the region are also watching Central Asian elections this year.

Campaigns in Uzbekistan seem designed to deflect such criticism. Parliamentary elections are coming up in December and they look to be well contested, with five parties participating. But those appearances may be deceiving, as all the parties are known to be pro-presidential.

Most journalists suspect that the announcement of a rival to Karimov is just a ploy to give the presidential election a pretense of democracy. At Saturday's press conference, People's Democratic Party officials were asked whether they had conferred with Karimov prior to announcing Jalolov as a candidate. They denied that they had and said that Karimov was "surprised" by their decision to field a candidate.

That seems unlikely. But if Jalalov is in fact a serious candidate, he faces an uphill battle.

And it is worth remembering that other people who have opposed sitting presidents in Central Asia have ended up in exile and/or accused of treason. Karimov's opponent in the first presidential election, Mohammed Solih, went into exile in 1993. Since then, the Uzbek government has accused him of having links to Islamic terrorist organizations and of plotting to murder Karimov.

In neighboring Tajikistan, Abdumalik Abdullojonov, the 1994 opponent of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, is also living in exile. The Tajik government accuses him of trying to overthrow it.

(Arral Azizullo of the Uzbek Service contributed to this article.)