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Uzbekistan election spotlights economic reforms, static politics

Popular leader Mirziyoyev considered a shoo-in with no room for real opposition

Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has presided over economic -- but not political -- liberalization.   © Reuters

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan goes to the polls on Sunday with incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev looking certain to repeat his resounding victory of 2016 and secure a second term at the head of Central Asia's most populous country.

Following a lackluster campaign that saw four government-approved opponents pitted against the president, the only real question appears to be whether Mirziyoyev will better the 90% share of the vote he won last time around.

Since taking over the presidency, after the death of longtime leader Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev has overseen a raft of changes. Significant improvements in the economy on his watch have bolstered his popularity, though the economic reforms have come with no signs of greater political freedom.

"The last five years have been truly excellent," enthused Aziz, who runs a small business in the capital, Tashkent. "In the economy, in education, in health care, in all spheres there have been improvements."

Karimov, who ruled this former Soviet state for 25 years, took the country on a path of isolationism that left the economy in a weak position. Mirziyoyev has taken a different tack, opening up the foreign exchange market, lowering barriers for cross-border flows of goods and people, and making it easier to do business.

"Mirziyoyev clearly understood how the economic situation could be improved, and that this would be more likely to strengthen his popularity than undermine his position," Richard Pomfret, professor of economics at the University of Adelaide, told Nikkei Asia.

At the same time, Pomfret added, "For the foreseeable future, President Mirziyoyev does not intend any challenge to his personal power -- on the streets of Tashkent there is zero sign of a contested election, and nobody doubts the election result."

Alongside high levels of satisfaction with the job he is doing, the incumbent is also well-known to voters, unlike his rivals.

Lalita Mirumyan, a woman selling crafts in downtown Tashkent, said she would be casting her vote for Mirziyoyev. "I have no idea who the others are," she admitted.

The president has "tried to do a great deal," she said. "He tries a lot, but it doesn't always work because his decrees are not always put into practice," adopting the "good Tsar, bad boyars" concept that blames selfish subordinates for not following through on the benevolent leader's initiatives.

Quite a bit has gone right: Uzbekistan's economy was one of a handful to achieve growth in 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, with the World Bank indicating gross domestic product expanded by 1.6%. In 2021, the bank projects a rebound to 6.2%.

Looking ahead, Uzbekistan will be aiming to maintain the momentum with more privatizations of state-owned companies planned, an ongoing overhaul of the tax system and World Trade Organization accession talks underway.

It is also looking to play a major role in neighboring Afghanistan --Tashkent has engaged with representatives of the Taliban in recent years and is hoping to kickstart a rail link to Pakistan's sea ports via Afghanistan. The link is a priority for this doubly-landlocked Central Asian state.

Uzbekistan has also launched a number of landmark construction projects across the country, such as Tashkent City. This project has transformed the city's skyline, while announcing Uzbekistan's arrival on the international stage as a forward-looking country that is open to investors.

Yet, the political landscape has remained largely unchanged over the last five years. There are five political parties registered in Uzbekistan, all of which are pro-government. Only officially approved parties can field candidates in the election -- independents are barred from standing.

The president's challengers are Bahrom Abduhalimov, leader of the Justice Party; Narzullo Oblomurodov, leader of the Ecological Party; Alisher Qodirov, head of the National Revival party; and Maksuda Varisova, deputy leader of the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, representing the only female face on the ballot.

Mirziyoyev is far more visible to Uzbek voters than his government-approved election opponents. (Photo by Paul Bartlett)

The election campaign has been a carefully choreographed process, with each candidate allotted equal funds from the state budget to buy media slots and street advertising. Mirzioyev's brand recognition has been enhanced by coverage of his official duties, while his opponents are conspicuously absent from state media reporting. The president has even been promoting his campaign trail stops on Twitter, despite the app being blocked in Uzbekistan since July.

Uzbekistan is ranked 155th out of 167 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2020 Democracy Index -- placing it between Iran and Libya, firmly in the ranks of "authoritarian regimes."

A report released this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom paints a bleak picture of the country as well, stating: "Despite the release of more than 1,000 religious prisoners through presidential pardons and the natural expiration of jail sentences since late 2016, the Uzbek government continues to imprison over 2,000 peaceful religious believers -- more than the entire population of religious prisoners in all the former Soviet states combined and one of the largest in the world."

Uzbekistan has never held an election deemed to be "free and fair" by credible international observers.

Earlier this year, two unregistered parties, the Erk Democratic Party -- Uzbekistan's oldest political party -- and the Truth and Development Party, announced plans to field candidates in the poll, but their attempts to open up the political playing field came to nothing.

Truth and Development, headed by political outlier Khidirnazar Allakulov, a former university rector who exposed endemic corruption in higher education, was refused registration in June. The authorities deemed invalid more than half the 20,000 signatures collected in support of its registration application.

Kristian Lasslett, professor of criminology at Ulster University and co-director of Uzinvestigations, which looks into corporate and government power in Uzbekistan, sees little hope for political reform anytime soon. The circle that has coalesced around Mirziyoyev is younger and more "commercially literate" than his predecessor's, and sees "few political or economic advantages from international pariah status," Lasslett told Nikkei.

The new ruling circle's main concern is "to build stable investment, trade and diplomatic relationships to expand their own power base and personal wealth," Lasslett said. "The endurance of authoritarian politics is critical to the interests of this ruling circle, and so it is unlikely 'turkeys will be voting for Christmas' in the near or medium term."

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