Uzbekistan has voted in a presidential election all but certain to secure incumbent Islam Karimov a fourth term in office.
The Central Election Commission said nearly 91.01 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots in the March 29 election.
Commission Chairman Mirzoulugbek Abdusalomov told a press briefing that “no irregularities” had been reported by polling stations.
Preliminary results are expected to be announced on March 30.
The 77-year-old Karimov has eliminated almost all opposition during more than two decades in power in the former Soviet republic in Central Asia.
He's been castigated by critics who describe the election as a sham in which his hand-picked rivals are effectively campaigning for him.
Karimov faced three other candidates -- Khotamjon Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party, Nariman Umarov of the Social Democratic Party Adolat (Justice), and Akmal Saidov of the Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) Party.
All three are from pro-government parties and spent their campaigns praising Karimov's policies.
Mutabar Tadjibayeva, a Paris-based Uzbek human rights campaigner and former political prisoner, says that not a single real opposition figure was able to register as a candidate because "no opposition exists in Uzbekistan."
Tadjibayeva said any opposition in the country had either been "destroyed, jailed, driven into exile, or killed."
In the 2000 presidential election, Karimov’s sole challenger, Abdulkhafiz Jalalov, emerged from the voting booth and announced to the media that he had cast his ballot for Karimov.
To be eligible to run for president, candidates must be nominated by one of the four registered political parties in the country.
All four are pro-Karimov parties.
The Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, which has the most seats in parliament, nominated Karimov as its candidate.
Nearly 21 million people are eligible to cast ballots.
The Central Election Commission said some 300 observers from 43 countries would be present to monitor the election.
The head of the CIS election monitoring mission, Sergei Lebedev, said the election complied with “democratic principles.”
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) is expected to issue its assessment of the ballot on March 30.
Western organizations such as the OSCE/ODIHR have never judged any of Uzbekistan's previous parliamentary or presidential elections to have been free and fair.
Who Will Follow?
Karimov was appointed as the leader of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989.
Since independence in 1991, he has won three presidential elections and extended his stay in office through referendums in 1995 and 2002.
Constitutionally, an individual can only serve two terms as president of Uzbekistan.
But when Karimov ran for his third term in 2007, no Uzbek officials mentioned the constitutional restriction.
Uzbekistan is currently one of the most stable of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, mainly due to Karimov’s tight grip on power and moves by the country’s security services to identify and neutralize perceived threats.
Political opposition in Uzbekistan was stamped out years ago.
Karimov’s health has been an issue.
He was not seen in public for several consecutive weeks earlier in 2015.
Some of opposition-in-exile groups claimed that he was in a coma.
It is unclear who would succeed Karimov if he died in office.
According to the constitution, the speaker of the Senate would become interim president in the event that Karimov was unable to perform the duties of the office.
Uzbekistan is also facing new security challenges in the form of radical Islamic militants, many from Uzbekistan, who have been chased from Pakistan’s tribal areas by a Pakistani military offensive.
Many of those militants have moved into northern Afghanistan, where they have been appearing in areas to the south of Uzbekistan’s border.
Uzbekistan also must contend with economic problems related to Russia’s economic downturn.
An estimated 4 million Uzbek migrant laborers in Russia sent back some $6.6 million in remittances in 2013.
But remittances dropped during 2014 and are expected to drop dramatically for 2015.
Many Uzbek migrant workers in Russia have also been returning to Uzbekistan and are joining the ranks of the unemployed, raising the prospects of heightened social tensions.
With additional reporting by TASS, Interfax, Reuters, AP, AFP, and The Guardian