When the spokesman for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev told journalists recently that he was unsure if his boss would run for president in the October election, no one was buying it.
"We have to wait to find out [who will run first]," Sherzod Asadov said at a press briefing in Tashkent on June 21, reminding the media that candidates do not submit their nominations until the end of July.
Asadov's attempt to generate some suspense in a presidential election that the incumbent is not only sure to participate in -- but also to win -- was pointless. Everyone expects Mirziyoev to handily win a second term in office.
The deputy chairman of Uzbekistan's Senate, Sadyk Safaev, said in a March interview he "does not see any other candidate [winning]" except Mirziyoev.
There will be other candidates. But they serve as props in a carefully managed piece of theater Uzbek authorities will call an election. Even Safaev said that without real alternative programs and candidates, "elections cannot be assessed as complete, fair, and honest."
"Fair and honest" is an interesting choice of words as maneuvering by the authorities -- far ahead of the October 24 election -- suggests nothing is being left to chance to ensure Mirziyoev's reelection.
"Alternative candidates" was also an interesting choice of words.
Uzbekistan has always had alternative candidates in its presidential elections, but only the first presidential election in December 1991 had a candidate who was a genuine opponent: Muhammad Solih, the leader of the Erk Democratic Party, who ran against the Soviet-appointed leader of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Islam Karimov.
Solih received -- officially -- 12.7 percent of the vote, making it the closest presidential election to date in Uzbekistan. But there were many claims then that the election was heavily rigged, so Solih's total could have been substantially higher if it had been honestly tabulated.
The next presidential election, in 2000, also had only two candidates, Karimov and Abdulkhafiz Jalolov, the head of the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (OXDP). That election was notable for Jalolov emerging from the voting booth and announcing to the press that he had cast his own ballot for Karimov.
Starting with the 2007 presidential election, the registered political parties in the government, all of which were pro-government, were able to field candidates.
The 2007 election was the last that had an "independent" candidate: Akmal Saidov, who in 2015, as head of the pro-government Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) party, ran against Karimov, coming in a distant second with 3.12 percent of the vote.
Saidov is currently the first deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament and, concurrently, the director of the National Human Rights Center. He remains the last person to run as an independent in a presidential election.
A genuine opposition figure, Sanjar Umarov, tried to run in the 2007 election but he declared his intention in 2005, was quickly charged with financial crimes, tried, convicted, and in prison by February 2006 on dubious charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and other financial violations.
Shortly after the 2007 election, the law was amended to remove the possibility of anyone running as an independent. Only registered political parties can participate in parliamentary or presidential elections and those parties are: Milli Tiklanish, the OXDP, Adolat (Justice), the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (OLDP), and the Ecological party, which had been a movement prior to the 2019 parliamentary elections.
In his March interview, Safaev said: "Our political parties do not work well enough today. Moreover, let's say they just don't work."
Two parties have been trying to register in time to take part in the upcoming presidential election -- the Erk party formerly headed by Solih and the new Truth and Development party led by Hidirnazar Allaqulov -- both have repeatedly had their attempts rejected by the Justice Ministry and been harassed.
The Erk party is now headed by former singer Jahongir Otajonov, who just returned to Uzbekistan from Turkey on May 12. Erk held a meeting in May 26 at Otajonov's home in Tashkent and put him forward as their presidential candidate.
But late in the evening, as party representatives discussed their plans, a group of some 20 people forced their way into Otajonov's home and broke up the meeting, screaming insults and throwing eggs.
Then, on June 15, many of the Erk members who had been at Otajonov's home for the meeting were summoned by police for questioning. Some believed the questions would be about the people who broke up the meeting.
Erk activist Abdusalom Ergashev was one of those summoned. He told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, that the inspector he met with was not so much interested in the intruders at the May meeting as they were in how long Ergashev had known Solih and other Erk members.
The situation is the same for the Truth and Development party, which had its meeting disrupted and its leader -- former Termez University rector Allaqulov -- detained and later similarly harassed at his Tashkent home by an unknown group of people, among other problems.
The Justice Ministry has not registered either party, even though both have submitted registration documents several times, only to be later told that the documents were incomplete or, usually, that not all of the minimum 20,000 signatures needed to register were valid.
Mahmud Yuldashev, one of the leaders of the People's Interest (Halq Manfaatlari) party, another independent party trying to gain registration, says he has received threats from people who said that if he did not cease his political activities they would end them for him.
Manipulating The Electorate
Meanwhile, Ozodlik reported that police have been warning university students against becoming involved with any of the new independent parties.
Students from universities in Bukhara, Khorezm, and Surhandarya told Ozodlik that police were warning students about political parties "who misinform the population with destructive ideas" and advised the students not to attend any of these party meetings.
Of course, a new law passed at the end of March makes insulting or slandering the Uzbek president "using telecommunications networks or the Internet...punishable by up to three years of correctional labor...two to five years of liberty restriction, or up to five years of imprisonment. That motivates citizens of Uzbekistan using social networks or YouTube to be careful what they post about Mirziyoev in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.
And while there is unlikely to be any criticism of Mirziyoev's policies on social media, Ozodlik reported that ministries, state institutions, and commercial banks are obligated to contribute large amounts of money to a fund created by the National Association of Electronic Media that will disseminate flattering news about Mirziyoev's "ongoing reforms."
As for the "ongoing reforms," Uzbekistan has indeed taken some steps away from the repressive era of first President Karimov.
But it was clear when the country had parliamentary elections in late 2019 -- and is even clearer now -- that reforms in Uzbekistan do not include the right to participate in the country's political process.