Uzbekistan – Karimov re-elected: what’s ahead?

Islam Karimov

On Sunday 29th of March, the Uzbek people voted to choose the head of the state in national election and, as expected, Islam Karimov has been successfully re-elected as president for the fourth time. With a turnout of over 91% of the current electorate, 90% of the voters cast a vote in favour of the incumbent president. The Uzbek constitution would not allow candidates to run for more than two terms, but an exception has been made for Karimov who got his third mandate already in 2007 and in 2011 ordered a constitutional revision to curtail the presidential mandate from seven to five years. As international monitors noticed, since then, Uzbek officials have justified Karimov’s decision to continue to run for office by pointing out that terms of a different length cannot be considered consecutive. Constitutional revisions are a popular move in Central Asia where Karimov and other neighbouring authoritarian leaders, such as the Kazakh president Nazarbayev, who is also running for the presidency in anticipated election at the end of April, have used them to justify their permanence in power. However, this election comes at an interesting time. While Karimov’s re-election is far from signalling any element of instability in the Central Asian country, it can be interpreted as a way to minimise elements of uncertainty such as Karimov’s ageing and health conditions, the future of the country and the outcome of the current struggle for power, which is going on within the Uzbek elite in anticipation of the post-Karimov era.

The election

Sunday’s presidential election saw the participation of four candidates, all nominated by their political parties. Incumbent president Karimov was nominated by the Liberal Democratic Party; Khatamjon Ketmonov by the People’s Democratic Party; Narimon Umarov by the Social Democratic Adolat (Justice) party; and Akmal Saidov by the Democratic National Renaissance Party. None of the candidates was a serious opponent or challenger to Karimov and according to a number of sources, they have spent their electoral campaigns by praising Karimov’s rule. Khatamjon Ketmonov, who is 45 years old, has been the chairman of the Central Council of the People’s Democratic Party since April 2013. He was deputy governor of the Andijan province and in December 2014, Ketmonov was elected a member of the lower house of parliament. Since January 2015, he has been at the head of his party’s parliamentary faction. Nariman Umarov, who is 62 years old, was appointed head of the State Committee of Nature Protection of Uzbekistan and in 2013 he became the chairman of the Social Democratic Adolat party. Akmal Saidov, who is 56, is the director of the National Centre of Human Rights of Uzbekistan and the chairman of the parliamentary committee of democratic institutions. The three challengers lost the electoral race to Karimov, who has been elected for the next five years. He garnered the votes of over 17 million (corresponding to 90% of the total number of the voters) over a total electorate of nearly 21 million voters, said Mirza Ulugbek Abdusalomov, the chairman of the Uzbek Central Election Commission.

This election has been criticised by both independent observers and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). OCSE vote monitors said the Uzbek poll lacked genuine opposition to Karimov and that the election was marred by legal and organisational shortcomings. Independent observers, such as Alexei Malashenko, a central Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, and Human Rights Watch, have called the election ‘a sham’ and draw attention to the lack of a real opposition to Karimov, while thousands of opponents are jailed or in exile. Fear and suspicion have hampered open political discussion and confrontation, while the media have been dominated by Karimov’s propaganda. In addition, the Islamist threat has helped Uzbek authorities to enforce special security measures and to avoid an environment of openness, limiting contacts with the international press and foreign media.

As for his political programme, Karimov has already outlined the priorities of his next executive during the end-of-year speech he delivered in December 2014. The crucial priority is economic development, with a planned reduction of the role of the state in the economy. Future reforms in this policy area will most likely be clarified by a presidential decree and privatization program in 2015. He has not discussed the most recent constitutional reforms approved in March last year which, crucially, transferred presidential power and duties to the prime minister while increasing the role of the parliament.

Struggle for power and political stability

It is not a secret that Uzbekistan is torn by an ongoing struggle for power between Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the intelligence service, the prime minister Mirziyaev, the finance minister Azimov and the Karimov family (which is internally divided between the eldest daughter Gulnara and the younger one, Lola Karimova-Tillayeva with whom the mother united in coalition), who are competing to shape post-Karimov Uzbekistan. For the moment, Gulnara Karimova is under house arrest and involved in an international corruption scandal, to the benefit of her competitors. Islam Karimov is old and the succession to his presidency is unclear. According to the constitution, the speaker of the Senate would become interim president in the event that Karimov is unable to perform the duties of the office. In the meanwhile, experts also highlight that the constitutional reform of March 2014 significantly increased the powers of the prime minister. Therefore, some are waiting to see whether president Karimov will mentor the prime minister Mirziyaev to handle the country’s economic and social matters and increase his prominence, or whether Karimov will remain the sole prominent decision-maker in Uzbekistan. In addition, giving that the power of the parliament also increased, the majiles is supposed to become a real agora of discussion and debate among parties, thus keeping the prime minister accountable. However, according to Alexei Malashenko, Karimov is likely not to consider any change of direction for the moment. On the contrary, because of the possible destabilising effects of the ‘war for power’, he is more likely to tighten up his grip on power.

John MacLeod, a Central Asia analyst of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, highlights however the presence of challenging elements to Karimov’s stable rule. He points out to the crowd that gathered to mourn the death of the Islamic scholar Sheikh Muhammad Sadeq Muhammad Yusuf on 11th of March, highlighting how unusual such a public gathering was in strictly controlled Tashkent. MacLeod linked this event to a diffused, yet still underground and not publicly expressed, feeling of distrust and discontent with the regime, whereby people have little faith in the state and its institutions and no means to express such a disappointment. In addition, worries about the economic performance of the country, which is going through a period of recession due to Russian economic difficulties, widespread corruption and large emigration flux might turn into a decisive mix to spread political discontent.

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