Uzbekistan's Mirziyoev Declared Winner In Presidential Poll Without Real Opposition

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has been declared the winner of a presidential election at the weekend, an expected result in a vote that featured no genuine opposition and western observers called "not truly competitive."

Central Election Commission Chairman Zainuddin Nizomhojaev said on October 25 that 80.1 percent of those casting ballots supported Mirziyoev. He added that 80.4 percent of the some 20 million eligible voters took part in the election.

Mirziyoev, 64, faced four little-known candidates who are largely pro-government. Three opposition parties were not allowed to register or have candidates in the race.

It was Uzbekistan’s sixth presidential election since the country of some 35 million people gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

As Mirziyoev's first term nears its end, he is struggling to counter impressions that his government is sliding back toward the authoritarian habits of his long-reigning predecessor Islam Karimov.

Mirziyoev did open up Central Asia's most-populous nation to foreign investment, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors, and eased the Karimov-era restrictions on religious freedoms while also releasing dozens of political prisoners.

But like his predecessor, Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in Uzbekistan and his relatives have been accused of using his political clout to amass wealth.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have also overshadowed some of his initial economic achievements, leading to higher unemployment and sharp rises in the cost of living.

He has also come under criticism for cracking down on his critics and activists ahead of the vote.

An international monitoring mission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on October 25 that despite some movement in the ongoing reforms, the election was "not truly competitive."

"Remaining restrictions on fundamental freedoms and the right to stand continue to run counter to OSCE commitments. While multiple candidates contested the election, there was no meaningful engagement with each other or with voters, and candidates refrained from challenging or criticizing the incumbent," an OSCE's preliminary assessment of the balloting said.

The Vienna-based organization added that counting procedures at polling stations "were often not followed and the figures in the result protocols did not reconcile in many polling stations observed."

Uzbekistan has never held an election that was deemed fair or democratic by Western observers.

Meanwhile, observer missions from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Turkic Council, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization said the voting was fair, transparent, and without major violations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the authoritarian strongman of Belarus Alyaksandr Lukashenka congratulated Mirziyoev by phone hours before the official results were announced.

Mirziyoev received 88.6 percent of the vote in the previous election in 2016.

Three unregistered opposition parties announced their intention to field candidates: the Erk Democratic Party, the Truth and Development Party, and the People’s Interest Party.

Despite their attempts, none was registered and official pressure eventually forced all of them to end their efforts to have candidates in the race.

The Erk Party's leader, Muhammad Solih, who has been living in exile in Turkey since the 1990s, called the presidential poll in Uzbekistan "fake."

"This election is a fake election. Fake elections are in the genetic code of Uzbekistan's political regime. All elections in Uzbekistan are based on that code, and that genetic code is Islam Karimov's code, which Shavkat Mirziyoev used today," Solih said, adding that the October 24 poll is no different from the 1991 presidential election that was "rigged" to declare Karimov as president of independent Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoev's only challenger to receive significant attention during the campaign was Alisher Kodirov, who proposed that Uzbeks working outside of the country should pay taxes in Uzbekistan.

That position is unpopular among a large portion of Uzbekistan's population that depends upon remittances from family members who work abroad.

Mirziyoev openly disagreed with Kodirov's proposal.

Some observers suggested that Kodirov announced his tax proposal to channel more votes to Mirziyoev -- a view bolstered by the fact that Kodirov's National Revival Party is in a parliamentary coalition with Mirziyoev's Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan.

The three other candidates in the race and their political parties were Bahrom Abduhalimov of the Adolat (Justice) party, Maksuda Borisova of the People’s Democratic Party, and Narzullo Oblomuradov of the Ecological Party.

Borisova was the second woman to run in an Uzbek presidential election. Oblomuradov is the first presidential candidate fielded by the Ecological Party.

Mirziyoev was prime minister from 2003 to 2016, when Uzbekistan’s first and only previous president, Islam Karimov, died.

Mirziyoev became acting president and then won a snap presidential election on December 4, 2016, receiving just over 90 percent of the vote.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and AFP