On New Year's Eve, while most people in Uzbekistan were preoccupied with thoughts of calculating their shrinking budgets and what to purchase for their festive holiday tables, the country’s president quietly approved a new version of The Law On Presidential Elections Of The Republic Of Uzbekistan. The decision to change this important judicial document came as a New Year's surprise.
In accordance with legislative procedure, for all laws to become functional, they must undergo three stages -- adoption by the Oliy Majlis, or lower house of parliament; approval in the Senate, the upper house; and the signature of the president. But little of this process was made public, as the amendments to the presidential election law went through mandatory procedures.
The text of the published law reveals clues of its legislative progression. It turns out that it was adopted by the lower house on November 27; approved by the Senate on December 4, and finally signed into law on December 29. However, archival research of information bulletins of hearings shows that neither the Oliy Majlis nor the Senate made these discussions public in due time.
It is true that publicly available minutes of the second day of the 4th Plenary Council dated December 4 briefly touched on the discussion by senators of an unidentified Law On Amendments And Additions To Some Legislative Acts, the first point on the agenda. Video reports of both meetings of those days aired on Uzbek TV’s prime news program, Axborot, and uploaded by the Senate to its video channel also gave no hint of the new procedures regarding future presidential elections.
Likewise, for reasons only the authorities know, parliament.gov.uz had only a single document dated November 27. It was titled Hearings On Implementation Of The Uzbek State Budget And The Budgets Of The State Trust Funds For Nine Months Of 2015, and spoke about “8 percent growth of GDP and inflation rate [that] did not exceed the forecasted parameters” -- a phrase commonly used to cloak galloping inflation rates. It lacked any information whatsoever on expected amendments to The Law On Presidential Elections, regarding which each parliamentarian was formally required to have informed his or her respective constituents.
A hastily posted short notice on the parliament’s website on December 30 acknowledged the changes had been approved by both chambers and praised the law as “a logical continuation of legal maintenance of the 'Uzbek model' of reforms, liberalization, and democratization of all spheres of life; consistent leap from a strong state to a strong civil society; improving the conditions for effective public and MP control over executive power.”
But what was the substance of those amendments that made authorities refrain from a more in-depth disclosure? Apparently the most important point obscured from the public eye was amendment No. 6, inserted into Article 24² of the stipulated law that deals with the procedure of nomination and registration of candidates for the president of Uzbekistan. This amendment calls for a sizable reduction in the number of signatures a presidential candidate must collect to register -- from 5 percent to 1 percent.
It first gives an impression that Uzbekistan eased the procedure for nominating presidential candidates to comply with international norms and standards. But it might have an ulterior motive and be more concerned not with the start of the registration process itself but with the end result of the vote.
Indeed, this change seems in accordance with the OSCE recommendations that pointed to “persistence of legal and organizational shortcomings” observed during the presidential election held on March 29, 2015. Specifically, it indicated that the “required number of support signatures is unreasonably high and contrary to international good practice.” In particular, it delicately referred to principle #c. ii of 2002 Guidelines On Elections Of The European Commission For Democracy Through Law, aka the Venice Commission, which explicitly prohibits the “collection of the signatures of more than 1 percent of voters in the constituency concerned.”
The collection of at least 5 percent of the total number of voters was a formidable challenge to presidential candidates. The number of eligible voters during the last presidential election was 20,798,052, meaning candidates had to gather 1,039,903 signatures of voters along with their passport ID numbers, date of birth, and home addresses.
The rules also demanded the signatures be collected within 23 days. This time frame is not written explicitly in the law but could be inferred by the formulation that the “nomination of candidates begins 65 days prior to election; registration of candidates ends 35 days before the election; and the Central Election Commission stops receiving registration documents seven days before the end of the registration period."
Islam Karimov’s competitors in the March 2015 presidential election were Akmal Saidov (from the Milliy Tiklanish Party), Hotamjon Ketmonov (from the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan), and Nariman Umarov (from the Adolat Party). Although all three were able to collect the required signatures from at least 5 percent of Uzbekistan’s eligible voters, on election day Saidov received only 3.08 percent of the vote, Ketmonov 2.92 percent, and Umarov 2.05 percent.
The incumbent Karimov received an overwhelming 90.39 percent of the vote. Such incongruous election outcomes raise questions about the transparency of the whole process and might have forced the authorities to finally revise their procedure. But the registration deadlines remain unchanged.
In previous amendments -- made in 2004, 2008, and 2011, and interestingly all in the month of December -- the government preferred to toughen the rules. Now, years later, and out of the blue, it has opted to ease part of the registration challenge for future presidential candidates. That development alone is highly intriguing.
It will now be difficult to predict who future presidential candidates might be. Very few politicians besides long-standing President Karimov receive much media attention. A close look at video footage seems to show an intentional avoidance of close-up shots of leaders of both chambers of the parliament. Footage for the public of a chairperson, speaker, or leaders of political parties lasts no more than a few seconds and coverage constantly moves from one deputy to another. In this way, state footage creates an illusion of active parliamentarianism, but at the same time makes individual deputies unrecognizable and easily forgotten in the collective memory of the people.
Changes to Uzbekistan’s important legislature on the future destiny of the country may highlight that, on one hand, there are people in the government who are not indifferent to finding ways for peaceful succession mechanisms, building contingency plans, and striving to maintain the foundations of civic and public order meticulously built over the years. On the other hand, it reveals a generally tense atmosphere in the top echelons of power that forces all members of the government to avoid any claim or ambitions for the top post of the country that conveniently enables the current president to enjoy his absolute prerogative monopoly in pursuing both foreign and domestic policy and displeasure of any demagoguery or populism that could panic the public or destabilize the society.
Zabikhulla Saipov (@zabisaipov) is a Central Asia research analyst. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a PhD in political science from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy. He is the author of Turbulence: Islamic Factor In U.S. Foreign Policy" (UWED Press, 2014)