WILL OR WON’T UZBEKISTAN GO DEMOCRATIC ?

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By Bibhuti Pati

The current dispensation in Uzbekistan is all set face its first ever litmus test over its true commitment to democratic changes as a key central Asian country holds its parliamentary and local elections on December 22.

The poll results seal the fate of the nation whether it continues to remain as a quasi democracy or it will be first in region that is prepared to embrace multi-party democratic system of governance as the five political parties that are allowed to stand for polls are dubbed as Potemkin group, set up simply to create the impression of a multi-party system.

The elections are being held under a tight watch by international community that is keen to see whether the current President Shavakat Mirziyoyev keeps his commitment that the country is committed to true democratic changes that he has ushered in after three years of steady but piecemeal reforms.

Uzbekistan, once an important part the erstwhile Soviet Union will hold local and parliamentary polls first time since Mirziyoyev took over from late Islam Karimov three years back and introduced a reform agenda that includes an election code providing for transparent  electoral processes right to vote for any candidate without state fear or pressure.

After few days from today people of Uzbekistan will exercise their franchise that has put at stake the constitution of central Asia’s biggest parliament that has 150 representatives and 100 senators- all but 14 directly elected. The democratic elections in central Asian region has always been troublesome since it broke up from Soviet Union with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan all are following the voting pattern deeply rooting in authoritarian systems. Kirgizstan could be only nation in the region that could be described as “”partially free”.

“We know the world is watching. The Uzbek people tell us they want free and fair elections. We, the commission, want free and fair elections. My commission is no “toy” of the government. The only power that controls us is our country’s Election Code,” said Mahmud Istamov, deputy chair of Uzbek election commission.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations allowed international monitoring in central elections. However, their recommendations have rarely been followed. No Uzbek election has ever been rated as “democratic.” Uzbek officials are aware of their country’s “dreadful image” and lack of credibility. But the Central Election Commission is promising “a new kind of election in a new Uzbekistan.”

The present Uzbek government looks confident of free and fair elections as the United States strongly supports Mirziyoyev’s reforms and hopes these elections yield genuine political change. A top US diplomat termed the elections as a very top-down process. He believes the man at the top is determined to transform the country.

“Many of the [reform] ideas are coming from him or his administration but have to be implemented. Sometimes that process makes political reform harder to see. But I sense that [parliamentarians] feel a new responsibility to play a different role, “he said.

Common people on the streets of Tashkent say they cannot discern one party from another, nor see them as offering new ideas or solutions. Instead, they view the parties as a set up carefully and deliberately crafted to deceive people back home in general and global community in particular.

A more vigorous critique of the current government comes from Uzbek opposition groups which remain based outside the country, but these have been barred from participating in the election. “There is opposition inside the country—a new generation whose critical voice is increasingly heard in the political sphere and public debates. … We want that kind of natural development, not some foreign-orchestrated opposition groups,” said Sherzod Kudrtkhodjaev, a prominent member of the central election commission.

Kudratkhodjayev says the existing parties, from liberal democrats championing economic freedom to conservatives advocating traditional Uzbek values, are shaping the political landscape. “Not everything the government wants gets approved or done today … Many bills and proposals are trashed in parliament because of opposition.”

The U.S. officials see Mirziyoyev as a modernizer whose reforms could come to fruition in the elections, even though the system is still run by people integral to the previous regime, which never allowed free elections. Those who chose exile under Karimov view themselves as the heroes of Uzbekistan’s story, daring to question repression and advocate change. But Kudratkhodjaev argues that those who stayed worked to ensure the country did not fall too far.

India has its interest in the central Asian region as the area is full of energy resources that are vital for India to achieve its much publicised goal of energy security. The ONGC-Videsh, state-run overseas arms of, Indian Oil and other government backed companies have been buying oil and gas stakes in countries falling in the oil and gas rich region. Indian foreign establishment has been keeping a close watch on the election process that is taking place in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government has also appreciated India’s offer to contribute in the ongoing elections process and agreed to ask for a team of its election commission, which has earned laurels among international community for its professionalism and unbiased manner of conducting the elections at various levels.

Recently, during the course of an interaction with foreign media at Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC New Delhi) the Uzbek ambassador Farhod Arziev said in response to a question to this scribe put to him: “For the past three years unprecedented election process is underway in Uzbekistan. In the beginning of 2017 under the initiative of President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, new national development strategy of Uzbekistan was adopted. The strategy has been consistently put into action since then”.

The ambassador also invited the Indian and foreign journalists to visit his country to oversee the elections. However, the invitation turned out to be a hoax as he later denied extending such an invite.

There are five political parties that have been allowed to take part in the parliamentary elections. They will contest for 150 seats of the lower house of Uzbek Parliament. They are National Revival Party, People’s Democratic Party, Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, Ádolat’(justice) Social Democratic Party and Ecological Party. A total of 20 million electorates will cast their votes that include 2 million youth force that will exercise their franchise for the first time.

Among five political party that are accredited to Uzbek election commission People’s Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party Adolan are considered to be Left oriented and Democratic Party ‘Milly Tiklanish are on the right side of Uzbek politics. The letter two parties have majority in the parliament and are part of a democratic grouping.

A recent poll survey that a leading news website, Kun.uz conducted among 33,000 people in who were asked to specify their choice of the party that should win the parliamentary polls, the Liberal Democrats got 35 percent and Milliy Tiklanish received 32 percent. The experts in central Asian affairs view this exercise in different way and they say figures are misleading because most of the people of Uzbekistan know very little about their parliament or the parties within it as it was evident from another survey conducted by the same website in which 95 percent of people responded in negative on whether they knew their representative.

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