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Pressure For Reforms Increases After Uzbek President's Overwhelming Election Win

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev casts his vote in the presidential election on October 24.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev casts his vote in the presidential election on October 24.

The preliminary results of Uzbekistan’s presidential election have been announced and, to no one’s surprise, incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev has won another five-year term in office.

Though he won easily, the official turnout and Mirziyoev's share of the vote were both lower than when he won a snap vote five years ago, with 80.4 percent of the electorate voting (87.7 percent in 2016) and Mirziyoev garnering 80.1 percent of the ballots (90.29 percent in 2016).

During the months leading up to the presidential election, aspects of Mirziyoev’s rule looked more like the paranoid authoritarian policies of his predecessor -- first Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- than those of a so-called "reformer."

And Mirziyoev’s credentials as a reformer -- as he styled himself when he first took office -- will be under greater scrutiny as he begins his second term in office.

Mirziyoev said during his first term that he was not against the opposition taking part in elections, yet three different opposition parties tried to register but all were denied registration and subjected to pressure the moment they made public their intentions to run candidates in the presidential election.

And no effort was made by Mirziyoev's government prior to the recent presidential election or the 2019 parliamentary elections to annul a 2008 law that prohibits independent candidates from running in elections.

A preliminary report by observers from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted that such electoral reforms as were introduced ahead of the October 24 presidential election in Uzbekistan “have not yet resulted in a genuinely pluralistic environment” and that “remaining restrictions on fundamental freedoms and the right to stand [for election] continue to run counter to OSCE commitments.”

Even among the five parties that competed in this recent presidential election, only Mirziyoev and possibly National Revival Party candidate Alisher Qodirov were widely known in Uzbekistan, the latter for his provocative statements about expelling homosexuals from Uzbekistan and taxing remittances from migrant workers. Though Maksuda Vorisova of the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan -- the Communist Party during the Soviet era -- surprisingly finished second in the election with 6.6 percent of the vote. She was the only woman in this election.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers abroad who were eligible to vote admitted they had never heard of the other three candidates – Vorisova, Bahrom Abduhalimov of the Adolat (Justice) party, and Nazrullo Oblomuradov of the Ecological Party.

So Mirziyoev’s victory was very similar to Karimov’s reelections, despite Mirziyoev campaigning on the slogan of him creating a “new” Uzbekistan.

What Lies Ahead?

Mirziyoev’s popularity is based on the image he has cultivated as a friend of the people, someone who understands their problems and vows to act to improve their lives.

That has been enough to inspire hope in many Uzbeks since Karimov all too often seemed unconcerned with the plight of his country’s people and was angered when they complained.

But Mirziyoev’s reformer image is already starting to fade.

He made so many promises during his first term in office -- many of which are still unfulfilled -- and made many more on the campaign trail for his second term.

One of his greatest challenges in the coming five years will be to strike a balance between "mosque and state."

Mirziyoev has criticized Karimov's excesses of the past that saw thousands of adherent Muslims imprisoned, in many cases simply because their piety aroused the suspicion of authorities.

Mirziyoev ordered many of those imprisoned on religious grounds under Karimov to be released, and he has reached out to those who might have “gone astray” and joined extremist groups that are outside of Uzbekistan -- saying that if they repented they could return home without facing punishment.

Mirziyoev has been careful not to mention Karimov’s name in all of this, since Mirziyoev was Karimov’s prime minister from 2003 to 2016 and bears a certain degree of responsibility repressing Muslims.

Mirziyoev also dropped the ban on women wearing the hijab in public as sign of the Uzbek government’s new religious tolerance and he successfully courted support from some influential Muslims inside Uzbekistan. But this could come at a cost.

One such individual is Abror Abduazimov, who works at the Center for Islamic Civilization in Tashkent and writes a conservative blog under the name Abror Mukhtor Ali.

He has, for example, posted about the artwork of great painting masters such as Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt and said they are “alien” to Uzbeks.

Ali and others have also made statements on the need for Islam to play a greater role in governing Uzbekistan and it seems in exchange for their support such calls have been ignored by the government.

The ideas of someone like Ali would seem to be at odds with Mirziyoev’s vision of a modern Uzbekistan -- and his alliance with conservative Islamic elements in the country are already being tested.

With the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan there is suddenly a competing model of governance on Uzbekistan’s doorstep and there have been reports that Uzbek security forces have been rounding up suspected Islamists in recent weeks.

The more Mirziyoev perceives such groups as a threat to his government, the closer he will come to a showdown with the conservative Islamic groups he has enlisted for support but who seem increasingly emboldened to say how they think the country should be run and how people should behave.

Economic Gains?

Mirziyoev said not long after he became president that the economy would be one of his priorities -- and he has seen some success on that front.

He has opened the door to foreign investment and his moves to release high-profile political prisoners, devalue the official exchange rate of the national currency, and support greater regional connectivity have attracted new interest, particularly from Western companies and governments.

But he has also run Uzbekistan’s foreign debt from almost nothing to a whopping $36 billion in just five years.

Much of this money appears to have gone to construction, but for the construction of new buildings in the cities rather than to infrastructure projects where it is really needed for the benefit of the people.

There are growing concerns about unannounced tenders for these projects and suspicions that people close to Mirziyoev are pocketing a lot of this money as contracts are dished out.

Energy Problems

Though Tashkent and other cities have increasingly more impressive buildings, gas pipelines and power transmission lines are decaying, as was evident last winter when there were severe heating and electricity problems throughout the country.

Uzbekistan will need billions of more dollars to overhaul its domestic energy distribution network and construct the new power plants Mirziyoev has promised to build to ensure that all Uzbeks receive a steady supply of heat and electricity.

And for the second straight year Mirziyoev has ordered a halt to natural-gas exports to redirect the gas for domestic use. That did not totally solve the energy problems last year and it is unlikely to solve the serious power issues this coming winter or possibly the year after that.

Mirziyoev’s popularity in his second term is likely to erode greatly if he cannot find a solution to these problems.

The suspension of gas exports also means several billion dollars less in state coffers and the need for more international loans.

One more factor that will be significant in the next five years is how much wealth and power Mirziyoev’s inner circle can concentrate into their own hands.

Tashkent Mayor Jahonghir Artykhojaev, Mirziyoev’s sons-in-law Oybek Tursunov and Otabek Shahnov, and others are all profiting from their relationship with the president and will be loath to see him ever leave office.

That could lead to Mirziyoev deciding not to leave office when his second -- and constitutionally last term in office -- expires.

That is the big question as Uzbekistan moves through the next five years.

Will Mirziyoev step down and pass the presidency to a chosen successor or choose to remain in office by changing the constitution -- or even by simply ignoring it?

The one lesson everyone inside and outside Uzbekistan learned long ago -- and which was seen once again during the October 24 presidential election -- is that elections are clearly not a means for changing the country's leadership.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, contributed to this report.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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