TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN - The morning of Dec. 22, dawned cold but bright in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, as a morning snowfall gave way to afternoon light. For the first time since the death in 2016 of the country’s longtime strongman, Islam Karimov, voters went to the polls to choose a parliament and local councils.
For the first time also, they projected the heightened expectations of a much more mobilized and aware citizenry, despite their low opinion of the current crop of candidates for the so-far toothless legislature.
“Members of parliament have no trust or respect [from] the citizens because citizens don’t feel their impact,” said Kamil Fakhrutdinov, a blogger in the region of Kashkadarya. His Yakkabog24 focuses on once-forbidden socio-political issues.
Three weeks after the election, it is apparent that something meaningful has changed in this Central Asian republic, even though the electoral process itself was flawed and the country remains an authoritarian regime.
Even this highly circumscribed election gave citizens and the media space to ask questions that would have been unthinkable just three years ago.
“We are not the same passive society we were three years ago,” Fakhrutdinov told VOA. “So those who want to represent us must know that they will have been gifted [with] a trust and charged with working for the people.”
Since coming to power three years ago, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has announced a spate of reforms and changed some elements of this once brutal dictatorship. He has openly acknowledged the country’s legacy of torture and human rights abuses, removed from power the feared leader of the Uzbek security services, and dismissed dozens of national and local officials, including from the country’s coercive apparatus, such as the prosecutor’s office.
But Mirziyoyev’s hopeful words and modest actions have raised expectations sky-high, not just among international observers but, more important, among Uzbek citizens themselves. Uzbekistan is no democracy, but its citizens approached their first post-Karimov opportunity to cast votes with very real expectations for change.
Across the country, from Tashkent to regional cities like Namangan in the Fergana Valley, the process raised hopes that in the future Mirziyoyev might undertake bolder reforms and adopt enduring systemic changes. But the management of the Dec. 22 election also served to demonstrate the limits to the president’s reform agenda.
Five parties, little difference
The central problem for Mirziyoyev is that he aims to preserve the core elements of Uzbekistan’s political and economic system, and his own power, even as he opens greater space for rulers and ruled to interact. His government permitted five parties to contest seats, but all five were pro-presidential parties, chartered by the state and with proposed policies that varied not at all from Mirziyoyev’s and very little from one another’s.
No opposition parties, or opposition politicians in exile, were permitted to participate.
The Uzbek parliament itself has been historically weak. In interviews with members of the Mirziyoyev administration, as well as with the private sector, the most common criticism of parliamentarians was their lack of professionalism. Many fail to grasp even the basics of lawmaking and oversight.
That has been much on the minds of those who showed up at polling stations on voting day.
Namangan-based human rights defender Zohidjon Zakirov told VOA that voters in his region knew very little about parliamentary or local council elections, much less who was running or for what office. That sentiment was echoed in comments to VOA at polling stations.
To be sure, the voters were interested in the election. But few had illusions that meaningful changes could be expected from the candidates, who often seemed confused about why they were running, or what policies they would espouse should they win a seat.
Even so, the cynicism among the voters found expression in ways that, in themselves, suggested just how much has changed in Uzbekistan. For decades, the Uzbek media have been tightly controlled and a reliable mouthpiece of the state. But private journalists and bloggers found their voices in this contest. They asked tough questions of the candidates at state-organized debates.
In recent weeks, a humorous fake television advertisement, “As Much As We Can,” lampooned the electoral process, making fun of all five of the officially sanctioned parties by noting that they had simply promised to do “as much as we can.” The video and other commentary directly addressed the lack of substance and relevance in the political parties’ agendas.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), which monitored the election, issued an official statement emphasizing that while the vote “took place under improved legislation and with greater tolerance of independent voices,” it “did not yet demonstrate genuine competition and full respect of election day procedures.”
Still, it added, “The contesting parties presented their political platforms and the media hosted debates, many aired live.” For a country that was among the world’s worst dictatorships just three years ago, that is notable progress that will raise citizen expectations all the more.