Elections In Uzbekistan: Inertia, Nationalism or Socialism?

Our guest contributor Sam Cooper-Philips exposes the prospects for the upcoming elections in Uzbekistan.

Executive Summary

  • The presidential election scheduled for 4 December 2016 will be the most contested in Uzbekistani history, with four distinct and viable candidates presenting alternative visions for the country. The expansive powers of the Uzbekistani presidency mean that whoever wins will be able to play a major role in shaping the country’s third decade of independence.

  • The four candidates are Shavkat Mirziyoyev of the Liberal Democratic Party, Xotamjon Ketmanov of the People’s Democratic Party, Sarvar Otamuratov of the ‘National Revival’ Democratic Party, and Narimon Umarov of the ‘Justice’ Social Democratic Party. Mr. Mirziyoyev is campaigning on a platform of conservative continuity, but is more radical than he wants to appear. Mr. Otamuratov is a nationalist, whose educational policies may have unintended consequences for Uzbekistani politics well into the future. Mr. Ketmanov seeks to restore key elements of the Soviet system and limit privatization. And finally, Mr. Umarov rejects that progress and stability need to come at the expense of transparency and freedom, proposing a radically reformist policy agenda.

  • The Uzbekistani population, strongly influenced by chaos and inequality in neighboring countries, is mostly conservative. For this reason, most are backing Mr. Mirziyoyev as the safest choice, but exposure of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s risky political activities or foreign policy setback could jeopardize his campaign and allow an opponent to seize victory. Of the alternative candidates, Mr. Umarov stands out as the weakest, his reformism failing to strike a cord with a cautious voter base. Mr. Otamuratov and Mr. Ketmanov, however, are both close behind Mr. Mirziyoyev and have a more significant chance of securing victory should Mr. Mirziyoyev slip.

Change on the Horizon

The dates have been set and candidates named for what will easily be the most momentous event in Uzbekistan’s political history since independence. Only a few times in each country’s history is there a clear and identifiable choice about the future, and the presidential elections scheduled for 4 December 2016 are one such opportunity. Most elections feature incumbents of one form or another, a candidate who can continue an established national path; this is not so for the December elections, where for the first time in Uzbekistani history, the country’s founder and former President, Islom Karimov, will not be competing. Although they rose to power within the Karimov administration, all four candidates are very different politicians from the late Mr. Karimov and represent major departures from the former president’s vision of Uzbekistan. Unlike past elections, in which the immense political capital of the first and only President overwhelmed political opposition and limited all rival candidates to below ten per cent of the national vote, the election held this December will have no clear winner and no predictable outcome. While there are many objections to declaring the elections ‘free’ — there is no indication that the Ministry of Justice will be any more willing to register Islamist or Neoliberal parties than they were before Mr. Karimov’s passing — the election will represent a genuine and ‘fair’ competition between four powerful elites of the political class for the support of the roughly 20 million voters expected to participate in the December elections.

Uzbekistan in Central Asia

Before discussing the platforms and relative popularity of the four candidates, it is necessary to briefly discuss the structure of Uzbekistani elections and preemptively respond to critics of the electoral process. Although it is common to paint ‘dictatorships’ with a broad brush — as if every state with imperfect elections functions like Mussolini’s Italy or Stalin’s Russia — there is considerable variance between the ways that non-democratic states function, with many elements of Uzbekistani elections closely resembling Western practices. According to the critical reports of Uzbekistani elections — provided most years by the OSCE — the inconsistencies of Uzbekistani electoral practice are to be found in the registration of political parties and the suppression of certain civil rights. Political parties based in political Islam or other faiths, representing interests of specific ethnic groups, or advocating a Neoliberal expansion of personal liberties, are often subject to harassment by police, beatings and abuse, and other measures that prevent them from successfully organizing for elections. As a result, Islamist, right‐wing populist, and Neoliberal political parties are excluded from competition, and accordingly elections cannot be considered truly ‘free’. Among the four legal political parties, however, competition is allowed and encouraged in the name of multiparty democracy. Moreover, the conduct of elections in Uzbekistan is entirely in accordance with international best practices — the most serious violations were not vote rigging or coercion of voters, but the continuation of the Soviet practice of citizens bringing multiple IDs and voting on behalf of working spouses or elderly parents, behavior that was quickly correctly when pointed out by observers. Assuming that major changes to the Ministry of Justice and National Electoral Commission do not occur within the next two months, the presidential election should be assumed fair, if not free.

Karimov's Heir

Of the four candidates in the upcoming election, Prime Minister — and current interim President — Shavkat Mirziyoyev has received by far the most media attention. Mr. Mirziyoyev is the closest thing the December elections will have to an establishment candidate, receiving the support of the O’zbekiston Liberal Demokratik Partiyasi (O’zLiDeP) and the old guard of the political class on the assumption that he would continue the policies of the Karimov government. Mr. Mirziyoyev certainly has the credentials to act as a mute placeholder for conservative forces, with most of his political career as Prime Minister being spent as an underfoot figure responsible for implementing the policies of others, but his short tenure as interim President has demonstrated that he is far more ambitious, intelligent, and independent than previously thought. After having had presidential powers for less than a month, Mr. Mirziyoyev has undertaken a major project to clean house, appointing his deputy prime ministers to advisory positions that undermine important ministries and firing nearly a dozen regional officials for corruption and abuse of power — numbers that rise by three or four with every tour of local development projects or attendance at the meetings of regional councils.

Putin and Mirziyoyev

Despite this aggressive and potentially destabilizing war on corruption, Mr. Mirziyoyev’s electoral platform is still based on his ability to sustain the peace, stability, economic growth and gradual democratization which characterized the Karimov regime. In fact, the decision of O’zLiDeP to nominate Mr. Mirziyoyev for the presidency is explicitly grounded in his intimate familiarity with the goals of the Karimov administration and his ability “to provide the continuity (uzviylikni […] ta’minlash)” needed for future reforms. Although the political elite are undoubtedly aware of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s actions, most of his anti-corruption purges have been localized, and only one senior figure was involved. Because the actual turmoil has remained hidden, Mr. Mirziyoyev has been able to maintain the support of the conservative population that wants to preserve the Karimov-era status quo. This conservative bloc, based on the tremendous public respect for the order and gradual change engineered by Mr. Karimov, in contrast to chaos and violence in neighboring states, is likely to be the largest category of voters in Uzbekistan This support, however, is conditional on the basis that Mr. Mirziyoyev toes the party line and acts as Mr. Karimov would. In this context, then, Mr. Mirziyoyev is playing a dangerous game, as his anti-corruption purges risk provoking public dissent or disloyalty from elites, an event that would lay bare the relative weakness of the Mirziyoyev administration and potentially cost him the election.

The Nationalist Alternative

The next most popular candidate is Sarvar Otamuratov, of O’zbekiston ‘Milliy Tiklanish’ Demokratik Partiyasi (“National Revival” Democratic Party of Uzbekistan or MTDP). Whereas Mr. Mirziyoyev’s platform is based more on his perceived strength and ability to replace Mr. Karimov as a provider of stability, Mr. Otamuratov and the other candidates are running more traditionally ideological campaigns, promoting visions of Uzbekistan’s future which differ in significant ways from the gradual liberalization of all facets of society, as envisioned by Mr. Karimov and O’zLiDeP. The MTDP as a movement was born from the intense nationalism focused on Uzbek cultural, linguistic, and historical traditions that permeated the Uzbekistani universities and intelligentsia during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mr. Otamuratov is very much a child of this period, studying sociology at the State University of Toshkent — a hotspot of student activism during that period — during the early 1990s and likely participating in the nationalist movement.

The primary goals of the MTDP are the promotion of Uzbek history, cultural traditions, literature, language, and ‘traditional values’. Therefore, the reforms proposed by the MTDP are focused on issues of education, civil society, and the recruitment of civil servants, leaving its economic platform a replica of Karimovist principles of gradual privatization and a strong welfare state. In terms of policy, a Otamuratov administration would firstly reform both primary and secondary education to encourage patriotism and national culture, then move on to enact additional requirements for hiring state officials — likely implemented through an examination on knowledge of national history and culture, and competence in the Uzbek language, similar to many citizenship tests elsewhere — and create national sports and after‐school programs to promote patriotic values on the model of the Young Pioneers associations of the Soviet period.

Although its economic trajectory — and heterodox policies — would certainly continue, an Otamuratov presidency would represent an entirely new future for Uzbekistan, as the effects of nationalist educational policies would have a lingering effect on Uzbekistan’s political makeup. By inculcating intense nationalism in the nation’s youth and filling the civil service with these individuals, Mr. Otamuratov’s policies will create a more jingoistic body politic, less likely to cooperate with its neighbors and more willing to use violence in the resolution of border disputes. Interethnic solidarity, which currently characterizes Uzbekistani nationalism, is also liable to degrade following an Otamuratov administration, as intense nationalism will produce an ‘Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks’ idea, sidelining the nearly 10 million non‐Uzbek citizens and opening the way for the communal violence witnessed in Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. Mr. Otamuratov almost certainly does not intend to create this future, but it could certainly result in twenty years’ time as a result of his policies. The success of Mr. Otamuratov in the December election will depend immensely on the foreign policy of interim government, as both international spats and perceived weakness on the part of Mr. Mirziyoyev will bolster the MTDP’s base of rural conservative voters with urban nationalists and patriotic youth.

Socialist Nostalgia

The other major alternative candidate is Xotamjon Ketmanov, nominated by the O’zbekistan Xalq Demokratik Partiyasi (People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan or XDP). The XDP is the oldest party in the Republic of Uzbekistan, formed out of the rump of the Communist Party . Although barely in his twenties when the USSR collapsed, Mr. Ketmanov’s platform draws heavily from Soviet policies. Firstly, Mr. Ketmanov intends to resurrect a number of Soviet social programs which died off during the tumultuous years of early independence, especially those providing basic staples and utilities to rural areas and the urban poor, and after‐school programs — which were pervasive during the Soviet era, but have dwindled down to nothing following independence.

Flag Pins

The economic policy of the XDP also differs significantly from all other parties, envisioning a return of state control to many economic areas and a radical expansion of services provided by the government. The primary break between the current XDP under Mr. Ketmanov and its Communist origins comes in the realm of social policy; whereas the Soviet government did not really recognize a distinction between state and society, the XDP proposes limited interventions in the form of education and after‐school and extracurricular programs, with civil society developing apart from the state. In many respects, the future for Uzbekistan proposed by Mr. Ketmanov resembles the system that Mikhail Gorbachev hoped his glasnost and perestoika policies would create. The economic order envisioned by Mr. Ketmanov would feature limited private enterprise over small and medium sized businesses, with most large enterprises — including the important government monopolies on cotton, gas, oil, gold, and rare earths — remaining the property of the state. Although Mr. Ketmanov could become more radical when imbued with the expansive powers of the presidency, as it stands, these economic transformations would come through freezes on the sale of government shares in major industries, not through nationalization. This system of mixed public and private enterprises would coexist alongside an expansive social welfare system, still organized through the mahalla, which would provide all citizens with housing, heat, social services, and a minimum income. These economic reforms would have the most effect in rural areas, as the privatization of formerly collectivized land has had the greatest impact on Uzbekistani society, resulting in a cessation of the fees charged for agricultural inputs for cotton and wheat farmers, as well as rebuilding the expansive network of welfare and agricultural support for the rural poor, which has disappeared since the collapse of the USSR.

Mr. Ketmanov’s plan would likely do a lot of good in Uzbekistan, especially rural areas, and take a big bit out of rural poverty — a number which has remained stubbornly high despite growth — but would also diminish the rate of industrialization. Although Uzbekistani development is funded by trade surpluses rather than foreign investment, growth in key exporting sectors depends on the technology transfer gained from foreign investment, and Uzbekistan’s ‘special relationships' with Korea and Japan would certainly suffer under a less capitalist government. At the same time as being a call to the Soviet past, the future promised by a Ketmanov administration would allow for greater personal freedom than ever existed within the USSR, allowing civil and political freedoms to expand independent of economic liberty. The success of Mr. Ketmanov in the upcoming elections depends heavily on the activities of his party. In previous contests, the XDP has pulled punches in the face of the inevitable reelection of Mr. Karimov, but now that the campaign field is open, the XDP will be able to fully exploit the networks it has maintained since the Soviet period, making it much more effective than any other party at mobilizing voters and spreading campaign promises. There are certainly older voters from O’zLiDeP and rural electorates from MTDP who the XDP could stead away with a successful campaign. The decision of how, or whether, XDP will use this system will be among the most important factors in determining the result of the presidential elections.

A Liberal Outcast

The fourth candidate for the presidency, and perhaps the least likely to receive the support of the population, is Narimon Umarov, nominated by O’zbekiston ‘Adolat’ Sotsial Demokratik Partiyasi (“Justice” Social Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, or ‘Adolat’). Mr. Umarov came last in the polls in the 2015 presidential elections, and his party consistently receives the fewest seats in the Qonunchilik Palatasi (the lower house of the Oliy Majlis). This lack of popular support for Adolat is largely a result of a mismatch between the platform of Adolat and the sympathies of the Uzbekistani population. Adolat is the most liberal political parties allowed to participate in elections, and as a result threatens to unleash the instability so feared by the mainly conservative electorate. Mr. Umarov’s quiet and demure countenance, learned from years of working with the Communist government on agricultural policy in the republic, has not helped his poll numbers; many Uzbekistanis see him as weak or unable to provide the stability demanded by the unstable region.

The brand of reformism proposed by Mr. Umarov also has limited appeal to many Uzbekistanis, especially among the new urban middle‐class, because he rejects the exchange of liberty for prosperity , which so many Uzbekistanis are willing to make. An element of Islom Karimov’s success was an implicit contract with the population: that certain rights and political actions would be restricted, and that in return Mr. Karimov would make sure Uzbekistan was rich — unlike the Kyrgyz Republic — stable — unlike Tajikistan — and egalitarian — unlike Kazakhstan. Alone among the candidates, Mr. Umarov not only advocates, but has prioritized, the expansion of civil society, reform of the judiciary and other law-enforcement bodies, and increased transparency and accountability in government. While these reforms are obviously necessary for the future success of the Uzbekistani state, many citizens also understand that this internal reform will distract from larger development projects and create massive skill gaps in government, as the effective, but deeply corrupt, old guard will need to be replaced.

It is unclear what exactly an Uzbekistan under an Umarov administration would look like, as the effects of reform on the industrialization process and societal stability are unclear, but it could be a massive step forward for the country. For years, one of the main impediments to reform in Uzbekistan was an unwillingness to sacrifice economic growth, and the political support that come with it, by attacking vested interests within government or corrupt senior administrators. On paper at least, Mr. Umarov seems willing make this tradeoff. There are, of course, potential downsides: all of the worst fears of conservatives could come true, and reform under a weak president could unleash malaise, unemployment, and ultimately communal violence or a resurgence of radical Islamism. These trends are unlikely, but politics is a dynamic field, and change can always produces unexpected results. In all likelihood, this change with not come in December. Adolat has a weak support structure, and every other candidate is more popular than Mr. Umarov. It would take a miracle for Mr. Umarov to win, but it would not be the first miracle to happen in December.

An Uncertain Metamorphosis

For the first 25 years of its independence, Islom Karimov dominated Uzbekistani political life, during which “Uzbekistan has gone on its own path”. There is no doubt that Uzbekistan will continue to be unique, but the path that the country is on will change come December. Each candidate represents a different future for Uzbekistan, all with certain benefits, downsides, and risks. Mr. Mirziyoyev seems likely to win, but not secure in that position, and the 2 months until the elections hold great potential for surprises. I will not comment here on what future I believe to be best for Uzbekistan, all are with merit, and ultimately it is the choice of the Uzbekistani people and no one else. May they choose wisely.

Sam Cooper-Phillips - I am a post‐Soviet scholar specializing in Uzbekistani politics, and currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Politics from the University of Edinburgh. I began studying politics of the Soviet periphery at the University of Washington, and also learned Uzbek, an invaluable asset considering the lack of English‐language sources of news about that country. In addition to academic literature, the local periodicals and broadcasts of Uzbekistan and its neighbors are important sources of information and analysis about the present state of Uzbekistani politics.