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Uzbekistan: Elections Could Produce Younger Parliament

Voters in Uzbekistan will elect a new parliament this Sunday from a field of five parties -- all of which support the president. The vote is not expected to result in policy changes. But RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that it could somewhat change the demographics of parliament, as the president has lent his support to a party led by a younger generation of politicians.

Prague, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Five political parties are competing in Uzbekistan's parliamentary elections on Sunday. But the number of parties does not translate into a diverse choice for voters. The five parties differ little in their platforms and are all supporters of the country's president, Islam Karimov.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) occasionally sends observers to elections in Central Asia. More often the OSCE does not, as it says democratic standards for fair elections are not being observed. Such is the case in Uzbekistan this Sunday. The OSCE says that there are no true opposition parties or candidates running. It will send a small team to assess the vote, but says it already does not consider these elections legitimate.

This week (Nov. 30) the chairman of Uzbekistan's Central Elections Commission, Najmiddin Kamilov, responded angrily to the OSCE decision not to send monitors.

"Personally, I am not interested in the evaluation of the OSCE of our election campaign. If the words said by the OSCE, if this organization said these words at the start of the 1990s, they would be correct. The great successes made during the decade-long period [of independence], including successes in the democratic process should be recognized."

All five parties and their candidates back the process of slow reforms articulated by President Karimov. Parties that represent true opposition to government policies were banned several years ago.

Still, a change is expected for Uzbekistan in this election. In most Central Asian parliamentary elections, almost all the incumbents -- generally entrenched, communist-era apparatchiks -- keep their seats. That probably will not happen on Sunday.

The People's Democratic Party (Halq Democratik Partiyasi) has been the ruling party in Uzbekistan since independence. It is the former Communist Party, transformed by President Karimov shortly after independence. Karimov was the party's chairman until 1993, a year before the last elections to parliament, when he resigned, saying his position as president conflicted with party chairmanship.

The People's Democratic Party currently has 70 seats in the 250-seat parliament. But analysts say the party is poised to take a loss in seats, possibly a major one, in Sunday's voting.

President Karimov has said he will run for president next January as a candidate from the Self-Sacrificers Party (Fidokolar Milli Democrat Partiyasi). And that party is poised to do well on Sunday. It has candidates standing for 209 seats, the most of any party. The People's Democratic Party has 183 candidates standing.

Formed in the fall of 1998, the Self-Sacrificers Party is the newest on Uzbekistan's political scene. It also has the youngest membership -- most of its candidates for parliament are 40 years old or younger.

Why would the 62-year-old Karimov select this party? It is unlikely that he wants to push a faster pace of reform. Karimov will likely continue to follow the approach of economic reforms first, then social reforms.

Instead, the ascension of the younger Self Sacrificers could be an attempt by Karimov to present them as role models for Uzbekistan's large youth population.

Uzbekistan is currently facing a problem with militants who call themselves the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and say they want to overthrow the government. They fled the country and have since caused problems in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Some made it back to Uzbekistan last month, and killed nine people before being killed by Uzbek security forces.

The militants are also young -- their leader just over 30 years old. Karimov may hope that a younger group of parliamentarians will provide an example for the youth of the country and steer them away from extremist causes.

Also, a somewhat younger parliament supporting Karimov's policies gives a potential boost to the longevity of Karimov's reforms. There are 12 million eligible voters in Uzbekistan, but the total population of the country is 24 million. More than half of that population is under 30 years of age.

If Karimov wins the January presidential elections as expected, he would be set to remain in office through 2005, after which he would have to step down according to the constitution. Few believe Karimov will actually leave office in 2005 -- but if he does, he would want a successor to carry on his policies.

Sunday's elections will n-o-t spell any great progress in democracy for Uzbekistan. But elections in neighboring countries have kept grandfathers in parliament. If a bet is to be placed in Uzbekistan's elections on Sunday, put the money on a somewhat younger generation.

(Yakub Turan and Bill Hasanov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)