Real change in a country takes many years as populists who come to power soon find out. It cannot be achieved just by a clicking of fingers and a Picard-esque command to ‘make it so’. Leaders of states emerging from authoritarianism are also experiencing this impotence and, in the case of the (relatively) new leader of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, it will be up to the international community to help him decide whether or not to keep his country on course to reform.
In 2016, in his first election since taking over from Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev won handsomely in a contest that was generally regarded as being neither free nor fair. What made the post-election atmosphere different, however, was that the government responded positively to many of the criticisms and recommendations made by the OSCE’s election observation report and sought to engage with the most respected of the international election expert groups.
The 2019 Parliamentary election was the chance to gauge just how serious Uzbekistan was about reform. The result will have disappointed the government as much as it did the international community, but for different reasons. How the country now reacts will be the key. Will they push on with reform in the understanding that progress will be slow, or will they give it up as a failed experiment?
In the 20+ years of observing elections in the former Soviet states, I have not seen a contest quite like the 2019 elections before. Rather than a governing party, which abuses state resources and controls the media to the exclusion of all others, the Uzbekistan elections saw five parties given equal airtime and campaigning opportunities and little evidence of any sort of official favour for any of them. The problem, however, is that these parties are not real and all support the Government. The election, at least from a political perspective, was a sham. New parties cannot get registered and there is no organised opposition. Even independent candidates are banned from standing. The only dissent allowed – in a relaxation of the old order – comes from bloggers, although most of these choose to concentrate on the relatively safe space of social reforms and local issues.
The effect was like the contest to choose a class president in a primary school. There is no individuality, no street activity and the authorities effectively take all campaigning decisions.
In theory, Uzbekistan’s five parties represent a wide range of ideologies. There are two parties of the centre-right – one based on more of a nationalist creed and the other a party of business and good governance. On the centre-left is a party of state professionals and a party of workers. There is also the Ecological Party (Eco-Party), the only new party to be registered in the past 20 years having previously been a movement with a guaranteed quota of 15 seats in Parliament. This last espouses green issues but also favours nuclear power.
In my experience, having talked to many candidates over the course of the election campaign, is that, with the marginal exception of the Eco-Party, none really understood what their party is about. None could name policies that set them apart from their electoral opponents and the only way to differentiate between them is through the colour of their rosette. There was also some confusion about how they were chosen to stand, with most appearing to have been parachuted in from the capital. All claimed to have a membership of between 1500 and 4000 in each of the 150 constituencies but myself and my fellow OSCE/ODIHR observers did not observe any of these members undertaking any campaign activity on behalf of their candidate.
When it came to the campaign, the few leaflets distributed were all designed and printed by a central government printing house and looked identical. The main campaign activity was a series of hustings, as many as three each day in each seat, which were organised by local election commissions and where each candidate gave a bland speech about their personal history. Again, none set out any real policy platform. There were few, if any, questions from the audience and those that were asked were about local social issues.
The media campaign was hardly more grabbing. Each candidate received a regulated interview in which they said little more than their stump speech. Even in the few national ‘debates’ there was little attempt to examine the difference between the party programmes.
Nevertheless, the overall coverage was nothing if not even-handed. In election observation, we carefully monitor the media to reveal any bias in coverage of the different parties. Even in the fairest and most pluralistic media environment, we tend to find that some parties are getting as much as 50 per cent more airtime than their rivals. In authoritarian regimes the ruling party can expect to receive as much as 20 times the amount of coverage of its rivals when airtime showing the work of the President and Parliament is taken into account. In contrast, the Uzbek election was fair to the point of being unnatural. Each of the five parties gained exactly the same airtime – to within one per cent.
Overall, the campaign did next to nothing to educate the voters about the candidates. Discussion of electoral issues meant pre-packaged segments on local preparations and voting locations rather than policies or candidates. The lack of anything approaching an opposition and the non-existent differences between the parties meant that the authorities really did not mind which candidates got elected to Parliament, which is, in any case, largely toothless.
Whilst the lack of political diversity was disappointing to the international community, what really disappointed the authorities was the failure to change the culture of Election Day. Exhortations to ensure that there was no cheating at the ballot box was ignored in many parts of the country, as proxy voting was rife.
In previous polls, the government had tended to set a desired outcome for both the share of the vote and the overall turnout. The role of local polling station committees, largely dominated by the mahallas (local community councils) had been to secure these outcomes. This time the authorities wanted and expected things to be different. However, they found that all political systems have a large degree of built-in inertia and it will take several elections for an apparently genuine commitment to change to trickle down.
What we observed were significant additions to the voter list on Election Day, mostly without any genuine reasoning, and massive proxy voting, often evidenced by a series of identical signatures on the register. We also saw many instances of one person from a household turning up with the passports of all family members. In some cases, the presence of international observers led officials to protest loudly at this attempt to break the rules, to the bemusement of the poor voter who was doing exactly as he or she had always done and had seen those ahead in the queue do just minutes before. But in many cases the individual was simply given five or six ballot papers. We also observed a few polling committee members stuffing the ballot box with a dozen or so votes at a time.
There were some areas where change had been successfully implemented. It is a long running complaint that polling places the world over are often inaccessible to those with limited mobility despite being in schools and other government buildings. The Uzbek authorities were determined to get this area right and each building was assessed before the election with appropriate modifications made. Unlike in many ex-Soviet countries, when ramps were installed they were at a maximum of twenty degrees. We estimated that these efforts resulted in more than four out of five polling stations being accessible to Western standards. That is not ideal, of course, but is far better than anything I have seen before. Rather bizarrely, every polling place also had a white coated medical professional on duty the whole day in case a voter took ill.
The question at the heart of this election process, as with so many other aspects of life in Uzbekistan, is how far the government really wants to go in their changes. It is clear that they place a lot of store in 20 world rankings. Around a dozen of these are related to business or the economy and it is abundantly clear that the country is looking for foreign investment. Therefore, stamping out corruption and making business processes easier (or at least appearing to do so) is very important. And in Central Asia this is a significant concern. The region produces vast quantities of high quality soft fruits and other perishable crops, but these often rot before they can reach their markets due to poor logistics, red tape and corruption. There is little in the way of business sales understanding and almost no co-operation between the five countries in the region, with attempts to create a customs union derailed by external pressure. Importing foreign expertise and the money to make it happen is a key strategy of the government. Less clear, however, is the official response to demands to end the use of forced and free labour in the cotton industry.
Global rankings are also the key to social change and human rights issues. The government has identified some indices it wishes to make progress in and it will make reforms in order to rise to a higher position. Starting from a point as low as Uzbekistan means that limited reforms can produce significant rises. The government is, perhaps rightly, very proud of the award by The Economist of the status of most improved nation. But sustaining such improvements can be very difficult and there is a suspicion that the authorities would rather see the country improve by one or two places every year than make a significant jump to a level from which it is very difficult (or expensive) to rise further. The task for the international community is to make it clear that being number 95 in the world may be better than being number 117, but that it is nowhere near good enough.
So what sort of challenges face the government if it is committed to sustained progress up the rankings and real changes in the areas of freedom and speech and elections? The lack of oil and gas in the state puts it at a significant financial disadvantage compared with some of its neighbours, but also means that foreign relations will be based more on intrinsic values than access to natural resources. The attitude of the government in wanting change is clearly a very positive thing, but, especially with the pandemic and economic downturn, it may be easier to revert to an authoritarian mean than press on with progress.
If democratic reform is to continue, there are three key areas where I hope that progress will be made, in addition to renewing the efforts to stamp out polling day corruption. All are based on developing political pluralism and the debates that go with it. But, in true Uzbek style, all can be made incrementally.
First, there needs to be an understanding that the current system of political parties is a farce and does nothing to engender debate and the better governance that comes from having a genuine opposition. Ultimately, there needs to be the right for any concerned group of citizens to set up and register their own parties on either a local or a national basis. But the first step should be to allow candidates to run as independents at all levels of election and a light touch regulatory system to make sure that there is freedom to get a political message across and inspire electors to want to go to vote. In the process, it is likely that some or all of the existing parties will wither and die as it becomes increasingly clear that they stand for nothing.
Second, the power of the mahallas needs to be tamed. In the most recent contest, they compiled the voter list, nominated the members of the polling station committees and ran the hustings meetings. We heard anecdotal evidence that they were also responsible in some areas for finding and choosing the candidates. To western eyes, the mahalla will look like a strange beast. It is a cross between a local council and a tenants committee. However, this underestimates just how much social control they have. We were told that a household that falls out with its local mahalla could find access to many local services restricted. Over the course of a number of elections, mahalla election controls could gradually be stripped back and handed to returning officers or the parties or simply done away with altogether.
Finally, there needs to be more progress made in the area of media freedom. The semi-liberated blogosphere is a significant step forward, but its audience is very limited. Uzbekistan starts from a position of strength having managed such an even division of electoral coverage. But the media best serves its customers – the audience of voters – if it dives deeper and challenges candidates to speak up for their manifestos through probing questions. All candidates can still be treated equally and fairly, but a more confident media helps voters identify which are the stronger performers and which are weaker. In a country with a small oligarch class, the risk of descending into a Ukraine-style polarisation with each privately owned station promoting their own candidate and trashing all opponents is limited. In due course, there might also be debates in which more differences emerge between the party programmes, but this would be a cultural change in a country where the questioning of authority has always been a dangerous pursuit.
Alex Folkes has been an International Election Observer working for OSCE/ODIHR, the EU and other organisations since 1998. His work has covered the former Soviet states, South Asia and Eastern Europe. He was a long term observer for the Uzbekistan Parliamentary Elections 2019 for OSCE/ODIHR but this article represents his own rather than OSCE/ODIHR’s views.
Photo by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, under the following CC license.
 Referencing the popular phrase uttered by Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation and as used in subsequent social media memes.
 OSCE/ODIHR, Republic of Uzbekistan, Parliamentary Elections 22 December 2019, ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report, May 2020, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/9/3/452170_1.pdf
 The Economist’s country of the year, Which nation improved the most in 2019?, The Economist, December 2019, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/12/21/which-nation-improved-the-most-in-2019