Anyone expecting Uzbekistan's upcoming parliamentary elections to establish President Shavkat Mirziyoev's credentials as a reformer will probably be disappointed.
Uzbekistan's previous parliamentary elections were heavily staged events with predictable outcomes. The only competition between the parties registered for the vote was the battle to see which pro-government party could heap the most praise on the president and his policies during the campaign.
Though effusive praise for Mirziyoev has not been as obvious in public as it was for his predecessor -- the authoritarian Islam Karimov -- in previous parliamentary election campaigns when Mirziyoev served as Karimov's prime minister, the main fundamental flaw remains: all parties are pro-president and their candidates are running for seats in a parliament that is a rubber-stamping body.
But that doesn't mean there is no significance to these elections.
If some people yawned at the August 26 announcement from Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission that set December 22 as the date for parliamentary elections, it would be difficult to blame them.
Arguably, the most memorable moment from Uzbekistan's elections was also illustrative of any election the country has held since it gained independence in 1991.
In the January 2000 presidential election, Karimov, the country's first president, was running for a second term in office. He had won the December 1991 presidential election, then pushed through a national referendum in March 1995 that extended his term and kept him in power until 2000.
His opponent in 2000 was Abdul Hafiz Jalolov, chairman of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), formerly the Communist Party during the Soviet era and, until mere months before the election, Karimov's party as well.
All five of the political parties registered at that time voiced public support for Karimov, but he accepted a nomination to be the candidate of the Fidokorlar (Self-Sacrificers) Party, which was founded in 1998.
On election day, Jalolov emerged from the polling station and announced: "I make no secret of the fact that I voted for Karimov."
Wielding The Rubber Stamp
The country's previous parliamentary elections have all been practically nonevents.
In the December 1994 parliamentary elections, when a 250-seat unicameral parliament replaced the communist-era Supreme Soviet, the HDP took 69 seats, the new Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic party garnered 47 seats, Watan Taraqqiyoti (Progress of the Homeland) received 14 seats, and the Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) party, formed earlier in 1994, won seven seats.
The remainder of the mandates went to "local council nominees."
The HDP fell to just 49 seats in the 1999 elections and Karimov's new favorite, Fidokorlar, followed with 34 seats. Watan Taraqqiyoti, Adolat, and Milli Tiklanish split the remaining 41 seats.
Local council nominees took the most seats, 110, and independent candidates won 16 seats.
Watan Taraqqiyoti merged with Fidokorlar in April 2000, but this meant nothing as far as the work of parliament was concerned.
It was President Karimov who pointed out the obvious in a speech to parliament in April 2004. "[The political parties] do not have a solid, independent platform to the point where they differ little from one another."
Karimov took that opportunity to single out the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU) -- created in November 2003 -- and told them "not to compliment" other political parties, but rather criticize them.
The LDPU won the most seats in the parliamentary elections at the end of 2004: 41 of the seats available in a parliament that had been trimmed down to 120 members. Although local council candidates no longer appeared on the list of new deputies, independent candidates won 12 seats.
But there was no "criticism" of government policies from the LDPU or any of the other parties. Karimov had again extended his term in office in a January 2002 national referendum, and when his term limit came and passed in January 2007, no one in parliament or any of the registered political parties said anything. When Karimov finally announced he would run for a third term, no one in parliament or within the political parties pointed out that the constitution limits a president to two terms in office.
After a genuine opposition candidate for president emerged in 2007 (Sanjar Umarov of the Sunshine Coalition) and was subsequently hit with criminal charges that eventually forced him to flee the country, parliament adopted an amendment in 2008 that stated only candidates from registered parties could participate in the elections.
Senate member Mavjuda Rajabova appeared on state television in October 2009, saying there was no longer any need for independent candidates since "the majority of the population has been involved in the parties' activities."
There was not much initiative from the representatives of the four parties who sat in parliament (Fidokorlar merged with Milli Tiklanish in June 2008), something Karimov drew attention to in December 2008 when he spoke before parliament.
"After the merger of two political parties, Uzbekistan has four parties now," Karimov said. "I have a question for those who are sitting in this hall: Are you members of the political parties just for the sake of membership or for the sake of being their leaders? Why don't you demand on behalf of the parties to dismiss a governor? Don't you know that last year we passed a bill to give more power and rights to political parties?!"
That rebuke did nothing to convince parliament to become more active. The executive branch of government continued to propose all significant legislation and parliament simply served to adopt it.
But the parties did seem to finally heed Karimov's criticism about their similarity to one another and made some half-hearted attempts to try to show there were differences.
One example was a January 2011 article in the newspaper Golos Naroda (Voice of the People), which is run by the HDP. The article criticized the LDPU as "intensively using...methods of black PR rather than getting engaged in impartial and practical discussions" and "making statements based on assumptions, spreading groundless information, and trying to slander one's opponents." The article gave no specific examples of these things.
Change For The Sake Of Change
After the 2004 parliamentary elections, changes were passed that would change the unicameral parliament into a bicameral parliament starting with the 2009 vote. A popular vote would be conducted for 150 seats to the Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament.
Meanwhile, an electoral college made up of representatives from local councils in provinces across the country, the Karakalpak Autonomous Region, and the city of Tashkent, would select 84 members of the Senate with the president naming the final 16 seats.
Fifteen seats in the Oliy Majlis were reserved for members of the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan that was created in August 2008 with the purpose of publicly opposing plans by neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build massive hydropower plants on rivers that flowed into Uzbekistan.
Despite these changes and Karimov's criticism, there is little evidence the parties have convinced voters to switch to another party. The results of the 2009 and 2014 parliamentary elections are almost identical. The LDPU topped both elections, winning 53 seats in the 2009 poll and 52 seats in 2014. Milli Tiklanish took 31 seats in 2009 and improved to 36 seats in 2014, Adolat got 19 seats in 2009 and received 20 seats in the 2014 elections, whereas the fortunes of the HDP continued to dwindle as it won 32 seats in 2009 but dropped to 27 seats in 2014.
In March 2015, the LDPU and Milli Tiklanish formed a Bloc of Democratic Forces in parliament and the Adolat and HDP parties declared they were part of the parliamentary opposition. More than four years later, as this parliament's term comes to a close, it is still unclear what difference, if any, this made.
Looking ahead to the December 22 elections, one would suspect the LDPU will maintain its majority in parliament since Mirziyoev ran as a candidate from the LDPU in the December 2016 presidential election. In case anyone missed it, the LDPU is under new leadership as Bakhtiyor Yakubov, who had been deputy chairman of the LDPU's executive committee since 2005, took over the reins when Solijon Turliev stepped down in August 2017.
An Old New World
In many ways, Uzbekistan's upcoming parliamentary elections look like they will be very similar to the previous elections.
It remains quite difficult to distinguish one party from another. And, once again, no genuine opposition parties are registered to compete.
There are again five parties running after the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan (OEH) attained party status in January 2019.
The new environmental party has already caused some controversy.
In May, several "members" in Ferghana Province claimed they were forced to join the OEH.
And on November 23, during a "debate" of the five political parties that looked more like a lovefest, a member of the OEH came out in favor of plans to build a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan. (President Mirziyoev has been actively promoting construction of the plant.) According to some, that made Uzbekistan's Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan the only "green" party in the world to support nuclear power.
So it looks to be business as usual on December 22 -- except for one thing.
These are the first parliamentary elections since Mirziyoev came to power nearly three years ago.
Mirziyoev has already removed several key figures in the government who had long been important in Karimov's administration.
Now he has an opportunity to turn the Karimov-era parliament into a Mirziyoev-parliament.
That likely means there will be some new and younger faces in parliament, though they will probably continue to function much as their predecessors have for the past 28 years.