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Uzbekistan Election Preparation Criticized as Undemocratic

While much of the world's attention Sunday will focus on Ukraine's run-off presidential election, another former Soviet republic is holding polls on the same day: the central Asian state of Uzbekistan is slated to choose its lower house of parliament. But as VOA's Michael Kitchen reports from Tashkent, many see the election as less than democratic.

Uzbekistan's parliamentary contest has little of the trappings of a typical election.

There are almost no campaign posters, other than official government banners reminding citizens to vote. And few people in the capital, Tashkent, are even aware of who is running in their district.

The problem, according to several of Uzbekistan's political monitoring groups, is that the election offers little real choice.

Practically all of the more than 500 parliamentary candidates support President Islam Karimov - the man who has ruled since independence in 1991 and wields most of the power in this landlocked country of 26 million.

Uzbekistan's official Election Commission dismisses complaints that this is less than democratic. Instead, commission spokesman, Sherzod Kudratkhodjaev, argues that it is just a sign of the president's popularity.

He compares Mr. Karimov to U.S. presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Like them, he says, the president enjoys hero status for his leading role in Uzbekistan's break from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Still any true opposition party has been barred from participating in this election.

Mr. Kudratkhodjaev says these banned parties either falsified signatures needed to qualify their candidates or did not meet other election requirements.

These opposition groups, however, say they were shut out for criticizing what they see as the government's lack of free market policies and dismal human rights record.

Some parties are calling for voters to cast blank ballots in protest, while others say the polls should be boycotted altogether.

The state-regulated local media is praising the election as a democratic triumph. But foreign and independent groups say voters see little meaning in the exercise and that turnout will likely be low.

The Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe has sent observers to monitor the electoral process.

The mission's leader, Lubomir Kopaj, will not discuss the group's findings until after the vote. But he notes that a previous O.S.C.E. mission sent to assess Uzbekistan's 2000 presidential vote found it lacking.

"Generally they found that the election in Uzbekistan fell short of those commitments that Uzbekistan made in the international area and on the international standards of democratic elections," Mr. Kopaj says.

He says that in addition to meetings with the government and official election participants, his monitors have also been in contact with the opposition parties barred from running candidates.