Rigged Elections in a Surreal Land
Rigged Elections in a Surreal Land
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Rigged Elections in a Surreal Land

Uzbekistan’s leader is playing out a charade misnamed democracy. The longer the elite plays, the more violent the result will be, the International Crisis Group warns.

While the international media will no doubt give in-depth coverage to Ukraine's runoff presidential election on 26 December, there will be few TV cameras or journalists in Tashkent, where Uzbeks will be voting for a new parliament on the same day. The lack of world interest is hardly surprising: the elections were rigged long ago, and the result is a foregone conclusion--opponents of President Islam Karimov need not apply.

On the face of it, all the trappings of democracy are in place for the Uzbek vote. There are five political parties, and more than 500 candidates are chasing 120 seats. There is even a group of "independent" candidates, led by Akmal Said, head of a pro-regime human rights center and a constant figurehead of the government's rather ungainly public relations campaigns.

But of course none of this amounts to real competition, because anybody who is critical of the government has been carefully excluded. Opposition members who have tried to stand as independents have simply not been allowed to register. In most places, the authorities long ago decided who is going to win.

There are perhaps one or two reasons for optimism. The new parliament will be full-time, as opposed to the previous legislature, which met only a couple of times a year, Soviet-style. The hope is that full-time legislators may at least attempt some scrutiny of bills, hold some discussion of less-controversial legislation, and even perhaps voice some mild dissent.

But it is hard to be optimistic: if the government's role in handpicking candidates weren't enough, the continuing engagement of all major political figures in the state kleptocracy and the repressive means used by the regime will ensure loyalty.

It is just possible that, given time, one or more of these formal parties might develop an individual identity, and, over five or 10 years, parliament could evolve into something more like a real legislature and debating chamber.

But few now think that Uzbekistan has that kind of leisurely timeframe to start thinking about good governance.

The economy has been in decline since 2000, with per capita income shrinking every year. Government restrictions on private traders have taken a serious toll on small border towns, where unemployment is rife, and young people have almost no hope of real employment outside the bazaar. A further round of restrictive legislation threatens to bankrupt these traders and provoked thousands of people to protest in Kokand, Bukhara, and other bazaar towns in November.

For the first time for many years, these protests turned violent. In Kokand a police car was set on fire. In Andijan province in December, protesters demanding gas for heating threw stones at cars and beat local officials. These are not the peaceful demands for free elections seen in Kiev; these are signs of a population at the end of its patience, expressing its extreme frustration.

There are no legal secular opposition parties in Uzbekistan, so all sorts of underground groups are well-placed to gain political support from this disaffected population. The best-organized among them are Islamist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which have always recruited heavily among small traders. There is not much real support for their religious or political ideologies, but anyone critical of the government is increasingly getting a hearing. Suppressing the bazaar class seems almost designed to increase the influence of these groups.

Some international observers are bemused by the government's stance. What harm could an opposition party winning a couple of seats do? But the Uzbek leadership's defining political moments were the traumatic events associated with Mikhail Gorbachev, the man whose limited reforms ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet state. In their world view, allowing any opposition to run in the elections might open the floodgates. And it would provide newfound respectability to an opposition that the government has worked hard to sideline and vilify over many years.

There seems to be little concern in the government about what is really happening on the ground. In part, the elites in Tashkent are too caught up in murky power struggles at the top. In part, they are simply detached from the everyday misery of most people's lives. The publicity efforts around the election--almost surreal in their divorce from reality--are indicative of the growing gap between the regime's rhetoric and the real concerns of the population.

In the unreal world of Uzbek politics, elections do not involve any choice; limiting economic activity and entrenching monopolies constitute economic reform; and the Uzbek "war on terror" creates the very conditions in which Islamist radicalism and underground political conspiracies thrive. But one day, reality will dispel these illusions. And the longer it takes to get to that point, the more violent the result could be.

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