Polls have closed in Uzbekistan, where voters are choosing who will be the country’s next president after Islam Karimov, the autocrat who ruled the Central Asian nation for a quarter-century until his death three months ago.
Acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev, who had been the country’s prime minister since 2003, is widely expected to win a five-year term in the election.
The Central Election Commission announced that almost 87 percent of the 20 million-plus electorate took part in the poll.
The commission also said preliminary results would be announced on December 5, amending an earlier statement that results would be released soon after the polling stations closed.
Mirziyaev, accompanied by his wife, cast his ballot in a Tashkent polling station in the morning.
Russian journalist Viktoria Panfilova, a reporter for the Moscow-based newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service from Tashkent that Mirziyaev did not speak to the press.
"The front-runner in this election, [acting Uzbek President] Shavkat Mirziyaev, voted very early in the morning,” she said. “He arrived with his family but did not give any statements at the polling station. We can simply say that he showed his family for the first time."
The 59-year-old Mirziyaev has said that he intends to largely follow the political course of Karimov.
There are three other candidates on the ballot: Khatamjon Ketmanov of the People’s Democratic Party, Sarvar Otamuratov of the Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) Democratic Party, and Nariman Umarov of the Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic Party.
All three support the government.
Ketmanov and Umarov ran in a 2015 presidential election that critics described as a sham organized to secure a fourth term for Karimov, who had prolonged his power through a series of votes that were condemned as undemocratic by Western states and observers."The format for Uzbek elections has not changed since Karimov's death," Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst who lives in France, told AFP on December 4. "If anything, efforts have been made to ensure other candidates are even more obscure because Mirziyaev’s stature among the population is not yet what Karimov's was.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deployed observers in Uzbekistan to monitor the election process but has not yet commented on the fairness of the polling.
No post-Soviet election in Uzbekistan has been deemed democratic and fair by monitors from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Karimov, who became Uzbekistan’s Communist Party chief in 1989 and ruled with an iron fist as president after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, tolerated little dissent and eliminated almost all political opposition within the nation of about 30 million.
The government said he died on September 2, at age 78, after suffering a stroke.
Mirziyaev was made acting president six days after Karimov’s death was announced -- circumventing a constitutional process under which the upper parliament house speaker is supposed to take charge.
If the result of the December 4 election is a foregone conclusion, what is less clear is whether the president will ease the authoritarian rule imposed by Karimov or veer from his policies -- and to what degree.
Journalist Panfilova said that public hopes for change are high.
"[People in Uzbekistan] expect some easing in business, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises,” she said. “They expect that the country will be more open."
A loyal lieutenant to Karimov for two decades -- first as a regional governor and then as prime minister -- Mirziyaev has been described by former associates as a strict boss with a violent streak.
Critics dismiss as populist campaign ploys some of his recent efforts to force bureaucrats to answer to the people and resolve their problems, such as a hotline to the president and a demand that local leaders meet with their constituents.
But some Uzbek dissidents living abroad have high hopes that he will implement economic reforms, allow more freedom at home, and open ex-Soviet Central Asia’s most-populous country more to the outside world.
In a speech on his first day as acting president, Mirziyaev said Uzbekistan would continue the policy of not joining any international military alliances and not hosting any foreign military bases, along with not stationing its troops abroad.
Uzbekistan, a major grower of cotton and a producer of natural gas, borders volatile Afghanistan and lies in a strategic region where Russia, China, and the West vie for influence. It is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia and China, but pulled out of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time in 2012.
In the September 8 speech, Mirziyaev also said that strengthening ties with neighboring Central Asian states is "the main priority' for Uzbekistan's foreign policy -- and has won praise for apparent steps in that direction.
Within days of Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan released four nationals of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and withdrew policemen from a border area disputed by the two countries.
On September 23, Tajikistan announced that the two countries had agreed to resume flights between their capitals, Dushanbe and Tashkent, which were suspended in 1992.
And media in Kazakhstan have reported that the Uzbek and Kazakh governments are close to reaching a deal on the long-standing issue of border demarcation.
The developments have sparked hopes that unlike Karimov -- who was seen as throwing up obstacles to regional cooperation -- the new leadership is eager to take a softer line towards neighbors.
Another unknown is how much influence other powerful former allies of Karimov -- such as longtime national security chief Rustam Inoyatov and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, who is also finance minister -- will wield behind the scenes.
Mirziyaev was formally nominated for president by the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest political party in Uzbekistan.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the December 4 ballot, a runoff will be held between the top two candidates.
With reporting by TASS and Azernews