Islam Karimov was re-elected on January 9 as president of Uzbekistan for another five-year term. According to the official results, he received 91.9 percent of the votes cast, to 4.2 percent for his opponent Abdulhafiz Jalalov, in a two-man race. Jalalov is the first secretary of the Khalk Demokratik [People’s Democratic] Party, the legal successor to the Communist Party. Jalalov himself told the media outside the polling station that he had voted for his opponent, Karimov, and thus for “order and internal peace.” Voter turnout was 95 percent, boosted by the authorities’ Soviet-style mobilization of the 12.7 million-strong electorate, the largest by far in Central Asia. Voting day coincided with the Muslim holy feast of Ramadan.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other official international bodies, spurning the Uzbek government’s invitation, declined to monitor the election, on the grounds that voters were being denied a genuine choice. Some 120 foreigners were, however, on hand as accredited observers. Initial reports described the balloting as orderly and, on the whole, correctly administered. Journalistic and other accounts from the scene suggest that Karimov benefited from fear of upheavals and a general yearning for order–sentiments the authorities spared no effort in inculcating via the state media.
Karimov, 61, a former first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, was first elected in December 1991 as president, and had his term extended by a national referendum in 1995 for another five years. He led the Khalk Demokratik Party until abandoning it in 1996 in favor of the Fidokorlar [Self-Sacrificers, or Dedicated Ones] Party, whose candidate Karimov was in this election. Five political parties, all pro-government, are currently authorized to operate in Uzbekistan, and all entered the docile parliament in elections conducted last month.
The opposition Birlik and Erk parties are banned and their leaders have emigrated from the country. Erk leader Mohammad Solih had lost the 1991 presidential election to Karimov. Erk and Birlik share the government’s choice for a secular path of development, independence from Russia and cooperation with the West but advocate the opening of the political system, a move which Karimov considers premature.
Karimov’s electoral campaign dwelt heavily on the theme of protecting the secular state against “Islamic extremism” and “fanaticism,” pursuing economic development and joining the modern world. Constantly pointing to the conflicts which wracked three neighbor countries–Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan–the Karimov campaign underscored the civil peace prevailing in Uzbekistan and implied that the president’s reelection is indispensable to the maintenance of stability. The campaign particularly targeted young age groups, which form an inordinately high proportion of Uzbekistan’s population. The youth was exhorted to avoid being “led astray” into violent ways by militant and politicized Islam. Karimov himself made repeated, ritualistic references to divine support in his electoral discourse. He referred to “God” rather than Allah, and held out the Western and Japanese development models as those which Uzbekistan should (must) emulate.
In a monologue to foreign journalists on voting day, Karimov stated that he “dreamed” of the day when Uzbekistan would progress from highly personalized leadership–“heroic leadership” in some translated versions–to a “functional system of checks and balances,” one that would ensure stability and continuity while presidents come and go, “as in the civilized Western countries.” Karimov stopped short of putting a timeframe on that transition process. He did, however, pledge to begin his new presidential term by accelerating privatization and improving the conditions for foreign investment. That promise is understood to refer in the first place to relaxation of the stringent currency controls, which constitute a serious disincentive to foreign investment in Uzbekistan and an irritant in the country’s relations with the United States and international financial organizations.
The February 16, 1999 terrorist bombings in Tashkent–which killed sixteen and wounded more than 100, and narrowly missed Karimov–ultimately enhanced the president’s image as a protector of order and, thus, his popularity with or acceptance by Uzbek voters. Just two days before election day, the government thought it politically expedient to announce the execution of six convicted perpetrators of those bombings; sixteen accomplices were sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten to twenty years in the same trial (Uzbek Television, AP, Reuters, January 6-10).
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