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Erk, Uzbekistan's First Opposition Party, Says It Will Attempt To Field A Presidential Candidate

Jahongir Otajonov (file photo)
Jahongir Otajonov (file photo)

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan's Erk (Freedom) Party, which was banned in the 1990s and its leader forced out of the country and his associates jailed, says it plans to try to field a candidate for president in the election later this year.

According to a party statement on April 5, two members of the party, Salovat Umrzoqov and Jahongir Otajonov, have officially expressed their intentions to try to become the party's candidate for the vote.

It added that the party's Central Committee will decide later which of the candidates will be officially nominated for the poll that is scheduled for October 24.

"The Erk democratic party, which for 30 years has been conducting its activities under pressure and persecutions since it became Uzbekistan's first-ever independent political party to be officially registered with the Justice Ministry in 1991, has decided to nominate its candidate for the upcoming presidential election," the party said in the online statement.

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In January 2020, the Uzbek Justice Ministry refused to officially reregister the party, with Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov saying at the time that Erk "has remained in the past" and cannot relaunch its activities. It is highly unlikely that Erk will be allowed to officially run a candidate in the October vote.

Well-known Uzbek poet Muhammad Solih, who founded the party, was the only challenger to President Islam Karimov in the Central Asian nation's first post-Soviet vote in 1991.

Independent observers said at the time that about 50 percent of voters supported Solih, but official results said he obtained only 12 percent of the vote.

Election officials proclaimed Karimov the winner, sparking a student demonstration that was brutally dispersed. The number of students killed in the action is still unknown. In the aftermath of the crackdown, all opposition newspapers were shut down and probes were launched against opposition leaders, who had to flee the country.

Solih fled Uzbekistan for Azerbaijan in 1993 and later settled in Turkey, where he has since resided.

Karimov died in 2016 and his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoev, has been releasing political prisoners as part of a policy of gradually reducing authoritarian control in the county.

Mirziyoev has since positioned himself as a reformer, opening his country to its neighbors and the outside world, although many activists say the changes have not gone nearly far enough.

Although Mirziyoev has said he is not against having opposition political groups in Uzbekistan, it has been nearly impossible for genuine opposition parties to get registered since the country gained independence in late 1991.

Last week, six months ahead of the election and with physical attacks on government critics mounting, the government criminalized the "insult and slander" of the president in digital and online form.

Critics say the move is aimed at muzzling bloggers and others ahead of the election.

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