On December 22, 2019, the parliamentary elections were held in Uzbekistan for the the first time after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev succeeded the country’s long-serving leader Islam Karimov who passed away in September 2016. The author of this article participated in the elections as an observer, and this analysis is based on his personal experience and impressions.
744 candidates from five political parties competed in single-mandate constituencies for 150 seats in the Legislative Chamber, the lower house of the Uzbek parliament. Almost 14 million people cast a vote in the elections, including 62 thousand voters living abroad, many of whom had such an opportunity for the first time. The turnout was 67.8%, the lowest in the history of modern Uzbekistan [Elections.uz, 2019]. According to the country’s new electoral code, which was adopted in 2019, elections in a constituency are considered valid if one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. Since this was not achieved in 22 constituencies, and arithmetic errors were found in another three constituencies, only 125 legislators were elected as a result of the elections [RIA Novosti, 2019]. Therefore, the second round of the parliamentary elections was held in 25 constituencies on January 5, 2020, and only afterwards the Central Electoral Commission of Uzbekistan announced the final results.
The Movement of Entrepreneurs and Business People – the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, which received 53 mandates can be considered the winner of the elections. It is followed by the Uzbekistan National Revival Democratic Party with 36 seats, the Social Democratic Party “Adolat” (Justice) with 24 seats, the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan with 22 seats, and the Ecological Party of Uzbekistan with 15 seats [Fergana, 2019]. However, such party diversity should not mislead anyone. Funded by the state, all these parties publicly express their support for President Mirziyoyev and are ready to actively assist his reform efforts. Nevertheless, for the first time the electoral campaign was quite active. The national television hosted debates that were very dynamic, with the heads of the political parties actively criticizing not only each other, but also concrete government officials, which was unprecedented for electoral periods in Uzbekistan. At the same time, many problems were attributed to the previous years, although without indicating any responsible persons.
Nevertheless, the political parties had few disagreements, because each focused on its own niche. This is quite logical since the parties in Uzbekistan do not compete for playing a major political role but rather for increasing their possible share in the political system. Certainly, de jure the party which has the majority in the Legislative Chamber nominates the prime minister, but the candidate for this position is de facto chosen by the president. Therefore, the Uzbek political parties do not try to create a broad national agenda, proposing instead narrow programs reflecting the interests of specific social groups. For example, the Adolat party, which focuses on the intelligentsia, promised a reform of the healthcare system. The party plans to develop and introduce several laws: on healthcare, on the transplantation of human organs, as well as on protecting medical personnel from aggressive behavior of patients and their relatives [Adolat Party, 2019].
It appears that the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan carried out two important tasks, external and internal. For the external audience, the elections were to demonstrate the success of the liberalization process that had begun in Uzbekistan. A record number of foreign observers arrived in the country including the participation, for the first time, of the full-fledged observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Coincidentally, on the eve of the elections, the Economist named Uzbekistan the country of the year [The Economist, 2019]. This contributed to the increasing external interest in Uzbekistan’s elections. The Uzbek leadership demonstrated openness, the focus on democratization, and the improvement of the human rights situation. In particular, the gender equality theme was actively exploited, and a mandatory quota for female candidates was introduced, with each party obliged to have at least 30% of women in its nomination list. As a result, women received 48 seats in the Legislative Chamber, or 32% of the total [Fergana, 2019].
In turn, the internal task was to demonstrate a breakaway from the methods of the previous regime. For this, the government developed and launched the campaign “New Uzbekistan – New Elections”. The authorities tried to show the Uzbek people that elections are an important mechanism through which they could influence the decision-making process and selected parties would have the power to make necessary changes. Therefore, the election campaign was quite bright, and TV channels constantly demonstrated commercials dedicated to the elections. In addition, many different contests related to the elections were held throughout the country, such as the contest for the best promotional video dedicated to the elections, in which both professionals and amateurs, including children, participated.
Analyzing the materials and topics discussed in the Uzbek media during these elections, it can be concluded that the authorities provided the opportunity for free expression about some pressing issues of society. At the same time, it must be admitted that the number of discussed topics was limited and the main focus was diverted to grassroots corruption, the inefficiency of state institutions and state enterprises, labor migrants, and education issues. However, some sensitive topics did not receive much media coverage, such as the land seizure in Tashkent for the construction of the Tashkent City international business center.
In any case, the trend towards a renewal has affected the Uzbek political parties. The leadership was renewed in almost every party, and party functionaries were forced to enter the information space, trying to manifest their position on urgent issues. The political parties became really active in social networks and messengers and attracted popular bloggers and musicians to their campaigns. On the other hand, perhaps, the elections were used as an excuse to rebuild the parties’ bureaucratic apparatus, which was still connected with the old regime. After all, the ideology of the parties has not changed dramatically, and the old nomenclature could cope well with the new elections.
The election campaign has shown that candidates need to work on their communication skills while talking to the public or during a debate because some candidates made several political gaffes in their speeches. For instance, head of the People’s Democratic Party Ulugbek Inoyatov said that a family of five can live on a monthly income of about $260, and this statement was severely criticized [Kun.uz, 2019]. Although later other party officials tried to downplay his statement saying that he meant only food expenses, it was too late [UzNews, 2019].
Another issue with this election is that the event itself has become more important than the parties. For the country’s leadership, it was a big PR campaign. Therefore, the authorities judged the parties by their public activity, and it was not important how they worked with voters. Hence, the political parties were carried away by work with the media and over the internet, while party representatives seemed not to have much time to meet with their electorates face-to-face in the streets. Voters at 15 polling stations in the most densely populated areas of four constituencies told the author that they had not seen their candidates in person.
Given all the above, the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan have not brought many surprises: the Liberal Democrats have traditionally won, and Abdulla Aripov remains the prime minister. At the same time, the elections have changed the state apparatus, as it has become more open. The information space is filled with discussions about current issues, and the demand for politics in the media has increased. It should be noted that these are serious changes in the public space of the country. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan is still a state with a strong vertically structured power system, although it tries to develop its political landscape to make it more favorable for other areas, especially economy, to further accelerate the country’s growth dynamic.
Adolat Party (2019). Party poster observed during the elections.
Elections.uz (2019). Chairperson Announces Re-Voting. Retrieved from http://elections.uz/ru/lists/view/2240. Accessed on 09.01.2020.
Fergana (2019). Final results of the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan announced. Retrieved from https://www.fergana.agency/news/113927/. Accessed on 09.01.2020.
Kun.uz (2019). Ulugbek Inoyatov: “In Tashkent, a family of five can easily live on 2.5 million soums per month”. Retrieved from https://kun.uz/ru/news/2019/11/11/ulugbek-inoyatov-v-tashkente-semya-iz-pyati-chelovek-spokoyno-mojyet-projit-na-25-mln-sumov-v-mesyats. Accessed on 09.01.2020.
RIA Novosti (2019). Repeat voting in Uzbekistan will be held on January 5 in 25 constituencies. Retrieved from https://ria.ru/20191225/1562816565.html. Accessed on 26.12.2019.
The Economist (2019). Which nation improved the most in 2019? Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/12/21/which-nation-improved-the-most-in-2019. Accessed on 24.12.2019.
UzNews (2019). Party explained the leader’s speech on the content of a family of 5 people for 2.5 million sum. Retrieved from https://uznews.uz/ru/article/17710. Accessed on 09.01.2020.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Asset Ordabayev is a junior research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in International Relations from the KarSU (Karahanda) from 2012. In 2014, he earned his Masters degree in International Relations the Kazak National University (Almaty). From 2014 to 2017 he worked at the Institute of World Economy and Politics as a foreign policy expert. The main research interests are the geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent within the framework of the development of transport infrastructure, as well as the ongoing proces