Uzbekistan has held parliamentary elections three times since gaining independence in 1991; none have been seen by observers as meeting Western democratic standards.
Uzbeks again headed to the polls
to vote in a new Legislative Chamber on December 27, although going in all indications are that -- with no opposition candidates -- it will not fare any better than its predecessors.
But this poll for the rubber-stamp lower house has incorporated some new twists that, even if the result of the carefully controlled contest ends up the same, have made for a more interesting and elaborate show during the campaign period.
For one thing, the country's four registered political parties, all of which are openly pro-presidential -- are criticizing each other.
At the start of the last presidential race, in 2007, the People's Democratic Party (KhDP), the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party, the National Revival Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU) all nominated incumbent President Islam Karimov as their candidate.
Karimov, who has ruled the country since early 1990, accepted the nomination of the LPDU, the country's youngest party.
Now, the parties appear to be addressing a criticism Karimov first made in April 2004, when he said that the country's political parties "do not have a solid, independent platform, to the point where they differ little from one another."
But What's The Difference?
Comments made on December 21 by Kamola Hamidova, a member Adolat's political council, show how Uzbek politics has responded to Karimov's criticism, which he has since repeated on numerous occasions.
"The LDPU is the party of entrepreneurs and businessmen, but they failed to have good cooperation with their constituency," Hamidova said. "And we heard that there are cases when they did not even protect the rights of their own members."
Zuhra Botirova, of Adolat's executive committee, has said the LDPU is making promises it cannot keep.
It's not whether you support President Karimov, but how.
"They say that they are ready to take responsibility for the fate of the reforms. But from what they are doing these days, I can't imagine how they are going to do this in future," Botirova said.
Considering the LDPU won a majority of seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2004, despite it being the first poll the LDPU had participated in, it's perhaps the most likely target for criticism from other parties.
The newspaper "Uzbekistan ovozi" (Voice of Uzbekistan) is the mouthpiece of the KhDP, which was the Communist Party in Soviet times.
On October 8, "Uzbekistan ovozi" wrote: "Unfortunately," upon closer examination of LDPU policies "one finds out that cases of overestimating themselves, as well as cases saying groundless and illogical words about others, are becoming habitual."
The KhDP may feel greater need than other parties to topple the LDPU.
While the KhDP remains Uzbekistan's largest political party with some 364,000 registered members (and it won the second-highest number of seats in the 2004 election), that number is just over half what its membership was at the start of the decade.
KhDP Chairman Latif Gulonov vowed in October that his party would "fight for every seat in every electoral district."Paragon Of Democracy
In any case, the criticisms being lodged are vague at best, centering more on the conduct of other parties than on core issues such as social improvements or government reforms.
For voters wishing to know more about aspects of democratic elections, Uzbek television has been airing a new program during the campaign. However, "Elections -- A Reflection Of Democracy" have concentrated mainly on validating the way Uzbekistan conducts its elections.
On the October 3 edition of the program, Central Election Commission deputy head Kochkor Togaev said Uzbekistan's electoral practices are more democratic than that of many other countries. For example, Togaev noted, "If a person does not take part in the election, he will not be prosecuted."
Other programs have shown "an Italian university professor" and "a Japanese university teacher" saying that Uzbekistan's legislation in some ways outpaces that of their own countries.
On the October 10 edition, Frederick Ponsonby of Shulbrede, who as a hereditary peer enjoys a lifetime seat in Britain's House of Lords as Baron Ponsonby of Roehampton, appeared on "Elections -- A Reflection Of Democracy."
During the program, the Labour politician praised the "independent election system headed by the CEC," saying it ensured an "atmosphere of freedom, openness, and impartiality in Uzbekistan."
Uzbek political parties and candidates "have the opportunity to express their own ideas, views and manifestos freely," Ponsonby said.Only Party Members
A significant change to the parliamentary elections is that only candidates from the four registered political parties can compete.
Previously, the law allowed for independent candidates or candidates from "initiative groups." One of the candidates in the 2007 presidential election was from an initiative group.
Mavjuda Rajabova -- who sits in the Senate, the upper house of parliament whose members will be determined by local council deputies in January -- explained why initiative groups or independent candidates weren't needed during another segment of "Elections -- A Reflection Of Democracy."
"The majority of the population has been involved in the parties' activities," Rajabova said, adding that "certain criminal elements yearning for parliamentary seats could enter the parliament by organizing initiative groups of voters."
But even if the change were eliminate "criminal elements" from running for parliamentary seats, where does the process leave politicians who wish to serve in parliament but need their party's approval?
Komila Sodikova is a member of the LDPU who wants to run for a seat in parliament but cannot. She tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that she is "ready to sacrifice my life for the motherland, for the president," but when she tried to register as a candidate she was "laughed" at and told her party prepared its list of candidates "a year ahead, even though, according to the law, I still had time to put my candidacy forward. President Karimov is not aware of this, I believe."
Key among the changes to be seen this year is that the number of seats available in the new Legislative Chamber will rise to 150 from the previous 120 seats.
And of the 150 seats, only 135 will be decided in the December 27 poll. The remaining 15 seats will automatically go to Uzbekistan's Ecological Movement, a newcomer to the political scene, having been created in August 2008.
Electoral amendments that gave the movement automatic seats were made about the same time the government started criticizing plans to build large hydropower projects in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Uzbek government and state media question the environmental consequences of such projects.
Another change is that new legislation guarantees a 30 percent quota in parliament for women. According to the "Japanese university teacher" seen on "Elections -- A Reflection Of Democracy," the change is likely to be well-received by outside observers.
RFE/RL Uzbek Service director Alisher Sidikov contributed to this report