Uzbekistan’s Central Election Committee has announced that a presidential election will be held on December 23. According to Article 8 of the law on presidential elections, parliament is to approve the decision to hold an election three months before the president’s term in office ends (www.gov.uz). However, the legislature declined to call elections in October 2006 — three months before President Islam Karimov’s term theoretically ended — or in the subsequent twelve months. Now, parliament seems to have unofficially delegated its authority on this matter to the election agency.
Karimov has already bent the rules to stay in office and may try to run for a third term. According to the constitution, the election should have taken place in December 2006. Karimov was elected in January 2000 to a five-year term and was sworn in the same month. A 2002 referendum extended his term to seven years, which ended in January. However, the 2002 election law specifies that the election is to be held in December of the year when the president’s constitutional term ends — de facto giving him another year in office (www.gov.uz).
Another obstacle is Article 90 of the Uzbek Constitution, which reads: “The same person cannot be elected as President of the Republic of Uzbekistan for two terms in succession.” Karimov was elected for a five-year term in 1991 and again in 2000, but both times his term of office was prolonged by referendum. Uzbek authorities believe that each constitutional amendment reset the clock, meaning Karimov’s 2002 victory gave him a “first” term pursuant to the “new” constitution. Thus, they argue, he is eligible to run for his “second” term.
Karimov is likely to nominate himself again and hand-choose his competitor (or competitors). He will be reelected, but Karimov will cede his rivals as many votes as he feels are appropriate. This was his formula in 1991 and 2000, when he ran against Muhammad Solih (Erk) and Abduhafiz Jalolov (People’s Democratic Party). Both opponents helped give the elections an air of democracy and competition. Graceful losers, Solih sent a telegram to Karimov congratulating him with victory, while Jalolov declared that he had actually voted for Karimov (www.rferl.org, January 9-12, 2000; Uzbek TV, January 25, 1992).
After the election, Solih slowly began moving into the opposition. In the spring of 1993 he left Uzbekistan, after being detained for three days. Safe in Turkey, he began claiming that the Uzbek elections were unfair. After the election, Jalolov lost his position as head of the People’s Democratic Party, the repackaged former communist party. Karimov led the party from its creation until summer 1996, when he decided that, as head of the nation, the president should be “above parties” (UzA, June 21, 1996; Karimov’s briefing at the National Press Club, Washington, DC, June 25, 1996). Solih has still been in active opposition to Karimov and has been suspected of having ties to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and its leader Tohir Yoldosh (Tahir Yuldashev). The United States designated the IMU a terrorist organization following five car explosions in Tashkent in February 1999 (RFE/RL, March 5, 1999). Jalolov has since disappeared from politics.
Five officially registered parties and local councils — currently all loyal to Karimov — can nominate presidential candidates. At the moment, two official parties have announced plans to nominate their own leaders for the presidency.
Even if Karimov wins this presidential election, at age 69 he likely is searching for an acceptable successor. One potential candidate is his daughter, Gulnara Karimova. However, she still needs to be educated, as she has no serious experience in state affairs so far. The highest positions she has held have been an advisor to the foreign minister and counselor at the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow, both largely symbolic postings. Rumors said she had few actual responsibilities. At the moment, she controls several large businesses in Uzbekistan. Before nominating Gulnara as his successor, Karimov must appoint her to a high state post, like the late president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev did with his son Ilham, and until recently, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev with his daughter, Dariga. Fortunately, Karimov does not have a son-in-law with a bad reputation, like Nazarbayev’s disgraced former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev.
Karimov’s plans could be thwarted if popular protests were to take place in several Uzbek cities simultaneously. Although the Uzbek government was able to isolate and suppress the May 2005 uprising in Andijan, there is no guarantee that they could suppress a wave of protest today (www.ferghana.ru, May 13, 2005).
Any occasion can trigger a change of power, but the three democratic “color revolutions” that swept Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have all been reactions to disputed elections. Karimov’s regime has a strong hold on power, however, and likely could withstand an attempted revolution. Uzbekistan does not have the divided economic and political establishment, strong opposition (both in the parliament and outside it), weak government, higher level of political participation, and leaders-in-waiting that facilitated the other uprisings. Even the Kazakh opposition, which is relatively well financed and has experienced leaders, has failed to overthrow Nazarbayev’s regime.
Uzbek secular opposition groups are divided and highly dependent on Western financial and diplomatic support. Right now they do not seem to have the ability to bring thousands of people out for street protest. The Uzbek Islamic opposition, both armed and peaceful, underground in the country or abroad, appears to have more potential to organize protests and mobilize crowds, as in Andijan in 2005.
The United States and other Western countries do not seem to favor the Uzbek opposition, due to its weakness. While it is almost certain that the State Department, European Union, and OSCE will declare the December election to be neither free nor fair, it is highly unlikely that the declarations will be followed by any significant moves.
Karimov likely will do anything and everything in his power to remain in office and avoid the fate of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who fled to Moscow in March 2005 to escape his country’s Tulip Revolution.