Uzbeks vote on December 4 in an election that seems certain to cement acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev’s role as successor to Islam Karimov, the autocrat who ruled the Central Asian nation for a quarter-century before his death three months ago.
Prime minister since 2003, Mirziyaev was made acting president six days after Karimov’s death was announced on September 2 -- circumventing a constitutional process under which the upper parliament house speaker is supposed to take charge.
Mirziyaev, 59, is on the ballot along with three other candidates: Khatamjon Ketmanov of the People’s Democratic Party, Sarvar Otamuratov of the Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) Democratic Party, and Nariman Umarov of the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party.
All three support the government. Ketmanov and Umarov ran in a 2015 presidential election that critics described as a sham organized to secure a fourth term in office for Karimov, who prolonged his power through a series of votes condemned as undemocratic by Western states and observers.
Karimov, who became Uzbekistan’s Communist Party chief in 1989 and ruled with an iron fist as president after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, tolerated little dissent and eliminated almost all political opposition within the nation of about 30 million.
The government said he died on September 2, at age 78, after suffering a stroke.
If the result of the December 4 election is a foregone conclusion, what’s less clear is whether the president will ease the authoritarian rule imposed by Karimov or veer from his policies -- and to what degree.
A loyal lieutenant to Karimov for two decades -- first as a regional governor and then as prime minister -- Mirziyaev has said that he intends to largely follow the political course of his predecessor.
Former associates say that as a governor, he was a strict boss with a violent streak. And critics dismiss recent efforts to force bureaucrats to answer to the people and resolve their problems, such as a hotline to the president and a demand that local leaders meet with their constituents, as populist campaign ploys.
But some Uzbek dissidents living abroad have high hopes that he will implement economic reforms, allow more freedom at home, and open ex-Soviet Central Asia’s most-populous country more to the outside world.
In a speech on his first day as acting president, he said Uzbekistan would continue the policy of not joining any international military alliances and not hosting any foreign military bases, along with not stationing its troops abroad.
Uzbekistan, a major grower of cotton and a producer of natural gas, borders volatile Afghanistan and lies in a strategic region where Russia, China, and the West vie for influence. It is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia and China, but pulled out of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time in 2012.
Under Karimov, the predominantly Muslim country’s staunchly secular government appeared eager to suppress any signs of what it saw as Islamic militancy, and policies in that area will be watched for any evidence of a shift.
In the September 8 speech, Mirziyaev also said that strengthening ties with neighboring Central Asian states is “the main priority” for Uzbekistan’s foreign policy -- and has won praise for apparent steps in that direction.
Within days of Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan released four nationals of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and withdrew policemen from a border area disputed by the two countries.
On September 23, Tajikistan announced that the two countries had agreed to resume flights between their capitals, Dushanbe and Tashkent, which were suspended in 1992.
And media in Kazakhstan have reported that the Uzbek and Kazakh governments are close to reaching a deal on the long-standing issue of border demarcation.
The developments have sparked hopes that unlike Karimov -- who was seen as throwing up obstacles to regional cooperation -- the new leadership is eager to take a softer line towards neighbors.
Another unknown is how much influence other powerful former allies of Karimov -- such as longtime national security chief Rustam Inoyatov and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, who is also finance minister -- will wield behind the scenes.
Mirziyaev was formally nominated for president by the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest political party in Uzbekistan.
The winner of the election is to serve a five-year term in office. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held between the top two candidates.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said it has deployed observers in Uzbekistan to monitor the election process.
No post-Soviet election in Uzbekistan has been deemed democratic and fair by monitors from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
ODIHR had said the 2015 presidential election was marred by legal and organizational shortcomings. It said there was no genuine opposition to Karimov, who was given a “clear advantage” by the country’s “rigidly restrained media” during the campaign.
Uzbekistan’s Central Election Commission said the voting will take place in 9,334 polling places across the Sweden-sized country and another 44 in Uzbek diplomatic missions abroad.
Tens of thousands of people cast their ballots in early voting that began on November 24, according to Uzbek media.