External Affairs

Little Hope of Change in Uzbek Presidential Election

Uzbekistan goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a successor to the late Islam Karimov, but the result is foregone.

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev delivers a speech near a portrait of late President Islam Karimov during a mourning ceremony in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 3, 2016. Georgy Kakulia/Press Service of Georgian Government/Handout via Reuters/Files

Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev delivers a speech near a portrait of late President Islam Karimov during a mourning ceremony in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 3, 2016. Georgy Kakulia/Press Service of Georgian Government/Handout via Reuters/Files

On Sunday, December 4, the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan is going in for a snap presidential election to formally choose the successor of Islam Karimov, who died in September after a prolonged illness.

For most observers of Uzbekistan, however, the election is seen as a mere procedural formality for the ceremonial anointment of interim President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. He has been the prime minister of the country since 2003 and was named the interim president by parliament since the head of the senate, Nigmatulla Yuldashev, politely recused himself from the constitutional duty of serving as acting President for three months.

Yuldashev was never seen as a possible successor to the septuagenarian leader who ruled Uzbekistan with an ‘iron fist’ for 27 years. In March last year, Karimov won his fourth presidential election since he acceded to the top job in July 1989 about a year before the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

In fact, this will be the first time that the presidential ballot paper will not have his name. Instead, his Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU), has nominated Mirziyoyev  as its official candidate.

What Election really means for common people?

Mirziyoyev has three rivals –  the People’s Democratic Party’s Khatamjan Ketmonov, the Social Democratic Party’s Narimon Umarov and Sarvar Otamuratov of the National Revival Democratic Party – but none is seen as a credible threat,  despite the fact that the first two were also candidates in the 2015 election.

Besides 59-year-old Mirziyoyev, the only name recognisable to most people would be Ketmonov, but he is seen as the ruling establishment’s ‘yes-man’ and a ‘standby’ candidate.

Rival candidates have been getting reasonable space on state television and on billboards this time compared to earlier elections when there was hardly nay coverage of opponents, but international observers are not really optimistic about any real changes. post election.

An interim report by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Right released on November 24 has termed the campaigns as “moderately visible”, where all the four candidates have opted for a “similar array of campaign materials and [are] following uniform outreach strategies.”

While in the earlier elections, citizens were encouraged to come and vote as a sort of duty towards the nation, this time popular artistes and celebrities have been engaged to appeal to the youth. Although the internet is highly restricted, with access to websites critical of  the government frequently blocked, social media is nonetheless being utilised in the campaign. The OSCE interim report notes, “Online sources strive to challenge the traditional media’s selective approach to covering domestic events, including with reference to the election.”

Mirziyoyev has been seen as more of ‘fist’ than ‘brain’ to Karimov, and perhaps with an intention of an image makeover, he ordered the release of 72-year-old Samandar Kukanov, a political prisoner for 23 years, just days before the election. Since assuming office as interim president, Mirziyoyev has also been promising to focus on housing, revive the economy of and attract foreign investment by becoming the engine of growth. If voted to power, he promises to double Uzbekistan’s economy by 2030.

For ordinary Uzbeks meanwhile, securing the bare minimum requirements for survival such as employment, housing and a regular supply of natural gas during the winter remain the chief concerns. A report in Eurasianet.org observed, “At the street level, hopes are far more modest. Popular attention is fixed on microeconomic issues, and few seem interested in Mirziyoyev’s macroeconomic vision.” In November itself, there were reports of protests in the Jizzakh region – home of Mirziyoyev –  against the cut in the supply of gas when about 200 women came out on street and blocked the road.

Political protests are rare in Uzbekistan, a country that has consistently figured as “Not Free” in the Freedom House annual report; the only places it beats in the 2016 edition are Syria, Tibet, Somalia and North Korea.

Karimov’s legacy

In the West and among his critics, Karimov was famous as a ruthless dictator; notorious for indiscriminately shooting at protesters (for example in Andijan in 2005) or even throwing his detractors in boiling water.

File photo of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016 Friday. Credit: Reuters

File photo of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, who died in September 2016 Friday. Credit: Reuters

Yet, he is seen by many within the country and outside as one who led the foundation of a stable Uzbekistan through its most difficult times after the collapse of USSR) in December 1991. Unlike neighbouring Turkmenistan, or even Kazakhistan, Karimov had refrained from developing a cult pf personality and or building his own statues. His stature has grown after his death – with a mosque in Tashkent and squares in Moscow and Turkmenistan slated to be named after him.

Except Tajikistan, most of the Central Asian republics had continued with the same Communist leaders who had taken over the reins towards the fag end of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. Typically, the former first secretaries became presidents of their newly independent countries after dissolving their respective republics’ Communist parties only to revive and rechristen  them in a new avatar.

Informal clan-regional network – Soviet Legacy

Most western experts emphasise clan solidarities and portray these authoritarian regimes as vestiges of ‘medieval oriental despotism’ that lay too much stress on primordial relations. Present day Uzbekistan after all has been the the seat of some of greatest medieval empires centred around Bukhara, Samarkand and Khwarzem.

This informal network among regional elites in the form of power-pacts, however, needs to be understood in terms of larger regional solidarity that may have a remnant of the past clans’ solidarity but was further strengthened under the 70 year rule of the Soviet. As religious solidarity (read Islam) as well as tribal relations were seen as markers of medievalism and backwardness by the Communists, regional solidarity became one of the main instruments of mobilisation among the Central Asians to protect their interests.

Sharaf Rashidov, first party secretary of the Uzbek SSR, 1959 to 1983.

Sharaf Rashidov, first party secretary of the Uzbek SSR, 1959 to 1983.

Even the Soviets exploited these networks and allowed certain regions to prosper and share positions of power at the expense of others. A sort of patron-client network thus developed among the Central Asian republics; although a delicate balance of power was maintained by often having top party’s posts – the first secretary, the chairman of the supreme soviet of the republic (legislature) and the head of the state of the central committee’s chairman – from different clans-regions.

In Uzbekistan similarly, Tashkent, Ferghana, Khorzem Samarkand-Jizzakh and Kashkadaria are five loose regional groupings that emerged during the Soviet era that continue to remain relevant in understanding today’s politics of the Uzbek republic. In the early years of Soviet rule, Tashkent, due to its urban population and central location, as well as the Uzbek part of Ferghana (the whole Ferghana region is divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) that was suited for cotton-based industry due to fertile land became critical regions. Jizzakh near Samarkand was equally fertile though, and thus this region gradually emerged as another important power centre in the later years. All of the eight first sectaries of the Uzbek Communist party since 1929 were either from Tashkent or from Ferghana, except Sharaf Rashidov who came from Jizzakh and served in the highest position in the Uzbek republic from 1959 to 1983 until he was weeded out during Gorbachev’s chiska (purge) and later allegedly committed suicide.

Two succeeding first secretaries were again from Ferghana and Tashkent, respectively but were seen more as Moscow’s appointees cut off from the internal political dynamics of the country. Regional leaders hence manoeuvred against ‘Moscow’s interference’ and pitched Karimov, who hailed from Samarkand and was seen as a protégée of Rashidov – under whom he had served as finance minister before being demoted during the chiska and sent as governor of remote Kashkadaria.

Karimov could emerge as a sort of ‘consensus candidate’ as he had the support of Samarkand clan-regional leader Ismoil Juerabeekov, who grew to become the ‘gray cardinal’ of his government, particularly in the first decade of his rule. Gradually, however, Karimov began to consolidate power in his hands and applied the dual politics of stick and carrot to co-opt regional leaders or sideline them. Almost all the so called rebels raising the pitch for political freedom in the country or region were once part of this power clique who later fell from favour.

Karimov was a master in regional manoeuvring that proved critical in the first few years of the 1990s, when there were apprehensions of the the Balkanisation of Central Asia after the collapse of USSR. Strong regional power-pacts, coupled with weak nationalistic movements were the main reasons why Uzbekistan, like other countries in the region except Tajikistan, did not suffer from any civil war. Though Kyrgyzstan has seen a total of four presidents already, political transition in Uzbekistan appears to be following the model of Turkmenistan, which saw a  quiet succession in December 2006 after the death of ‘president for life’ Turkmenbashi by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

Karimov is in fact also credited with controlling Islamic extremism, particularly in the Ferghana valley, although his critics argue that he has often used the terror threat to neutralise his opponents.

Future ahead

Regionalism continues to remain an important factor in Uzbekistan, manifested by the fact that Karimov’s LDPU never won more than 32% of votes in the parliament. Clan-regional pacts are thus expected to play an important role in the Sunday election as well. Mirziyoyev’s victory would mean continuation of the same regional power-pacts that evolved in the 1960s under Rashidov, though with less power for regional leaders, including Juerabeekov.

Mirziyoyev comes from Jizzakh and served as its hakim or governor from 1996 to 2001, when he became the governor of Samarkand before becoming prime minister in 2003. The unlikely event of Mirziyoyev’s defeat, on the other hand, may lead to a reorganisation of informal regional alliances.

International observers in the past have accused Uzbekistan of poll rigging; considering that this is Mirziyoyev’s first presidential election, it will be interesting to see by what margin he wins the election or what proportion of votes he gets from other regions that may lead to the sidelining of old leaders to make way for new names subservient to new ruling dispensation.

A former journalist, M. Reyaz is a research scholar on Central Asia at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and also teaches at Alih University. He tweets at @journalistreyaz