To nobody's surprise, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been returned for a third term with more than 87% of the vote, according to the official tally, in an election that left many Uzbeks questioning Mirziyoyev's long-standing promises of democratic reform.
The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the principal institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, sent roughly 300 monitors to observe Sunday's balloting. They concluded that the election "was technically well-prepared but took place in a political environment lacking genuine competition."
The organization added diplomatically that "substantial changes are needed to provide a sound legal basis for the conduct of democratic elections."
With 11 experts in Tashkent and 24 long-term specialists deployed throughout the country since early June, head of mission Ambassador Urszula Gacek pointed out that her team's voter turnout estimate is lower than the official numbers presented by the country's Central Election Commission.
Muhabbat Nazar from Tashkent says she voted as a career woman as well as a mother. "My entire family were enthused by Mirziyoyev's speeches. Most of what he promised is not a reality yet. I still support him, wishing for more political space."
Like many Uzbeks, Nazar longed to see viable candidates but, as usual, voters had no real alternative to the sitting president. The three other nominees were largely seen as puppets from fig leaf parties which never question the leader.
Dilshodbek Abduvohidov from Namangan, an entrepreneur, said he did not vote, either on Sunday or in an April 30 constitutional referendum that cleared the way for the previously term-limited Mirziyoyev, 66, to call a snap election and secure the first of what could be two new seven-year terms.
"I don't trust the system. I want an independent judiciary and independent media, but I don't see the system striving for them," Abduvohidov said.
Researcher Dilbar Haydarova says young professionals like her expected "democratic steps from the leadership." While she bemoaned the nation's slow emergence from the authoritarian rule of post-Soviet President Islam Karimov, she still believes that under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan is moving forward.
For independent analyst Anvar Nazir, "Uzbekistan has always known it deserves better, yet is used to seeing whoever is in power as the most eligible, because no opposition is allowed."
"As much as we criticize the ruling elite," added Nazir, "our people come up with justifications for the status quo, rather than seeking solutions. Uzbeks choose the easy way."
Monitors cite irregularities
Ambassador Gacek, whose 250 short-term election-day observers monitored the voting process, ballot counting and result tabulation, told VOA that "the low-key campaign lacked meaningful engagement with voters and candidates."
"The conduct on election day was calm, but serious irregularities were observed, and important safeguards were often not followed during voting, counting and tabulation, challenging the integrity of the process," Gacek told VOA.
ODIHR's preliminary report cited a "constrained political environment that was lacking genuine political alternatives and the introduction of social measures, and new projects gave the incumbent an undue advantage and blurred the line between party and state."
International missions have made similar observations since Uzbekistan became independent in 1991.
"Many reforms are still in the process of being implemented," said Gacek. "During this election, the right of citizens to exercise fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression remained excessively circumscribed by legislation and in practice. ODIHR has made several long-standing recommendations, key to a democratic process."
US seconds findings
The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, which also monitored the election, supports ODIHR's conclusions.
"In addition to ensuring the integrity of election processes, democratic systems should provide citizens with real, competitive choices when they vote," read an embassy statement.
"As President Mirziyoyev begins his new mandate, the United States stands ready to help advance his agenda of reform and improved governance, including on rule of law, checks and balances among branches of government, and the protection of individual rights. These principles — when followed — are the bedrock of representative governance."
Such appeals reflect the concerns VOA has heard from American and other Western officials, who have asked whether these elections spell the end of reforms ushered in at the start of Mirziyoyev's presidency in 2016.
His reelection following a constitutional referendum appears all too familiar in Central Asia, where Turkmenistan's president handed over power to his son in 2022 and President Emomali Rahmon has ruled Tajikistan with an iron fist for decades.
CEC dismisses criticisms
Faced with questions from VOA about its credibility and independence, Uzbek Central Election Commission (CEC) officials staunchly defended their role as impartial.
"No one pressures us or gives us orders," responded Bahrom Kuchkarov, the commission's deputy chairman. "We abide by the laws and execute them. Our activity is based on our constitution and the election code."
CEC secretary Khudoyor Mamatov similarly pushed back. "Through their votes, the Uzbek citizens have shown overwhelming support of the current openness and transparency policy."
Answering another question about the ODIHR findings, CEC Chairman Zayniddin Nizomkhojayev argued, "We have gotten around 30 recommendations from them over the last five to six years and have implemented more than 20."
Reflecting a more skeptical view of Western organizations commonly heard in Central Asia, Kuchkarov said ODIHR "is not the supreme judge" of the election process.
"We have an ongoing cooperation. This is a step-by-step progress. Uzbekistan chooses to implement suitable recommendations."
Other CEC officials like well-known media personality Sherzod Qudratkhoja shared a similar perspective. "We are an independent, sovereign state with our own rules and constitution. We do not hold elections to be approved by the OSCE, or any other entity for that matter."
Qudratkhoja and other CEC members pointed out praise for the election from observers representing countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, Belarus and Azerbaijan — invited guests that are often hand-picked and sometimes paid by the Uzbek government.
Ambassador Gacek agrees that every country needs to find its own way toward a democratic system and credible elections but defends her organization's critical report.
"They keep saying 'we have our history,' 'we have our tradition,' 'this works for us.' I say, yes, it does work for you. But it does not meet international standards," she told VOA. "So, the challenge is to write those recommendations in a way that they are respectful, maybe, of certain local conditions, but nevertheless, we must always come back to the international standards."
Not every country in Gacek's parent organization, the OSCE, is a democracy. "But at the end of the day, we say, come on, guys, you signed up for this. And this is the direction we are going to prod you in ever so gently, but hopefully on the right path," the ambassador said.