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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

Uzbek Presidential Poll: Islam Karimov, the Unchallenged Leader of Uzbekistan

Sunday 12 April 2015

by R.G. Gidadhubli

During the last over two decades since the Soviet break-up, having given up 70 years of communist ideology and adopting the Western system of political democracy and market economy, all the 15 sovereign and independent states of the former USSR have been regularly holding presidential elections. On March 30, 2015, the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan declared the result of its presidential election held on March 26, according to which Islam Karimov was declared elected for the fourth time getting 90 per cent of about 20 million votes cast, the contest being among four candidates.

Islam Karimov, who was nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, got the maximum number of votes, his party securing a majority of seats in the Uzbek parliament. The other three candidates were Khotamjon Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party, Nariman Umarov of the Social Democratic Party Adolat (Justice), and Akmal Saidov of the Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) Party.

In fact Karimov has been in power during the last 25 years and there was hardly any doubt about his winning the election. Hence by completing his fourth term Karimovwill be the longest serving President holding unchallenged power in this most populous Central Asian country. As expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev were quick in congratulating Karimov, both of them appreciating his popularity in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek Election Commission Chairman Mirzoulugbek Abdusalomov, on his part, offici-ally stated that there were “no irregularities”. However, there are differences of opinion among political and media analysts of the East and West as regards the fairness of this election as has been the case with elections held in most of the former communist states. As expected, there has been support to the official statement by Russia, China etc. For instance, according to Sergei Lebedev, head of CIS election observer mission, the Uzbek election was “trans-parent, free and democratic” thus supporting the official statement. Similarly, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation observer mission chief Dmitry Mezentsev, who is incidentally a Russian national, stated: “Every election campaign event was open and transparent and strictly complied with Uzbek legislation.”

However, these statements are in sharp contrast to the views by several Western analysts and institutions. In fact most of the Western organisations and analysts do not agree with the ‘fairness’ of the electoral process as revealed in the above assessments; and in fact they have never described any of Uzbekistan’s previous parliamentary or presidential elections as free and fair.

As opined by some Western analysts, Uzbekistan’s presidential election poll lacked genuine opposition to the incumbent, Islam Karimov, and was marred by legal and organisational shortcomings. In support of their contention it is argued that all the contestants were from pro-government parties and, what is even beyond imagination and perception in the West was that in the Uzbek election campaign, the Opposition candidates were highly praising Karimov and in fact fully supporting Karimov’s policies. Hence the question of Opposition did not arise.

Secondly, the official of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Tana de Zulueta, has stated that the Uzbek poll lacked genuine opposition to Karimov and was marred by legal and organisational shortcomings. Moreover, the figure of Karimov dominated the political landscape of Uzbekistan and hence there was hardly any scope for the democratic process of electing the President.

Thirdly, there are many Uzbek critics of Karimov and, as opined by Mutabar Tadjibaeva, who is Uzbek Human Rights Campaigner and former political prisoner now living in France, there was no Opposition challenging Karimov since ‘no Opposition exists in Uzbekistan’. She is candid in stating that opponents have been “destroyed, jailed, driven into exile, or killed”. It has been argued that Uzbekistan’s “rigidly restrained media gave Karimov a clear advantage” despite rules granting all candidates equal access to the media.

Fourthly, a legal point has been observed by some critics stating that the Uzbek Central Election Commission registered Karimov as a candidate “despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms”. But there could be a case in support of Karimov since he has won three presidential elections and extended his stay in office through referendums in 1995 and 2002.


From what is stated above, a few points need to be made. Firstly, it is evident that the Western standards of democratic traditions and values do not prevail in these former communist states and even leaders do not fully subscribe to the Western concepts of democracy. Hence, as opined by some analysts, what prevails is ‘Managed Democracy’ in these post-communist countries. Secondly, it is important to note that three major parties call themselves democratic—Liberal Democratic Party of Islam Karimov; People’s Democratic Party of Khotamjon Ketmonov; Social Democratic Party of Nariman Umarov. This is another evidence that the concept and contention of democracy differ between the West and East.

Thirdly, notwithstanding what is stated above, in the opinion of many Western analysts in Uzbekistan and Central Asian states, what prevails is authoritarian regimes, with the Kyrgyz Republic appearing to be an exception. This prevailing authoritarianism could be an amalgam of historic ethnic-Islamic tradition and seven decades of communist rule where the ultimate leadership rests with the Party and its Leader and where the Opposition is not accepted and even tolerated.

Fourthly, even as Islam Karimov has largely succeeded in giving political stability in the domestic sphere, under his leadership external ties of Uzbekistan have been swinging sharply between Washington and Moscow during the last over two decades. For instance, in the 1990s, Uzbekistan was getting close to the West and shifted away from Moscow. But subsequent to the Andijan events resulting in ethnic violence and against sharp criticism by the US policy-makers about a decade back, Uzbekistan moved away from America and became close to Russia. Uzbekistan had withdrawn from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation led by Russia in 1999; it rejoined the CSTO but pulled out again in 2012.

On these issues even as for Karimov national interest has been crucial and important, this has at times brought adverse impact on the state’s foreign relations. In fact for Uzbekistan national interest dominates even in the case of intra-regional issues such as sharing of water and energy often affecting economic relations with other Central Asian states of the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. During the Soviet era there was hardly any conflict between upstream countries of Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic and the downstream republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Sharing of energy was also not an issue. Hence close and cordial regional cooperation prevailed.

Perhaps with pragmatic and idealist conside-rations, Islam Karimov should take a more pro-active role in his fourth term to build regional cooperation for larger regional interest and for the long term interest of Uzbekistan so that it plays a major role as a regional power.

Fifthly, as rightly observed by an analyst, even as 77-year-old Karimov will continue as the President for the fourth term in office, he has not made any proposal as to who will be his successor, which could be a matter of concern for the continuity and stability of the country which is the largest in Central Asia in terms of population. This assumes importance considering the fact that Karimov’s health has been an issue and, as reported by Western analysts, he was not seen in public for several consecutive weeks earlier in 2015.

In fact at one time Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Karimov, was considered as a possible successor to Karimov. But she has been involved in allegations of bribery and money-laundering and has been under house arrest for several months possibly with the full knowledge and orders from Karimov himself. Hence she is unlikely to succeed Islam Karimov as the President of Uzbekistan.

Even as behind-the-scene race might be going on for succession, there could be various alternatives. For instance, a successor could be one among the contestants in the election who has praised Karimov during the campaign. Alternati-vely, it could be a leader from Karimov’s Liberal Democratic Party possibly from the southern Uzbek region of Samarkhand or from the northern region of Tashkent.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.