TASHKENT – Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is expected to retain his seat when election results are announced late Monday afternoon.
Democracy, not his presidency, was the focal point of the conversation when the country headed to the polls on Sunday.
Some 16.3 million people cast their ballots, or 80.8% of the country’s eligible voters, based on numbers calculated by 10 p.m. The high voter turnout was viewed as a testament to the strength of the country’s fledgling democracy.
The largely secular Muslim country, once in the Soviet Bloc, has increasingly turned westward since Mirziyoyev came to power five years ago. It is a marked contrast with neighboring Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban this summer.
Sunday’s elections were “one of the historical achievements of our people,” Central Elections Committee chairman Zayniddin Nizamkhodjaev said as he announced the voter turnout at a special press center set up in Tashkent.
A voter walks near a board displaying information about candidates, including Uzbek incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, at a polling station during a presidential election in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, October 24, 2021. (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
The room immediately broke into applause, even though no news had been given about who the victor was.
This shows that “Uzbekistan has moved forward to the new democratic society,” Nizamkhodjaev said, adding that the turnout was “a great step” and a sign that “political activism is growing.”
“We deeply congratulate our people on behalf of the Central Elections Commission,” he said.
The election process was covered by more than 971 local and international mass-media representatives, Nizamkhodjaev said.
Among those in the country for the elections were a small number of Israeli journalists, including from The Jerusalem Post, flown in at the expense of the Uzbek government as part of its endeavor to highlight the country’s democracy.
It was a theme that was prevalent among the small number of voters interviewed by the Post in Tashkent. When asked why they voted, they spoke about democracy rather than any one specific issue.
University students Mohiso Kalollova, 20, and Kumush Tilovoba, 21, were among those who had lined up to vote in the country’s capital of Tashkent.
It is important to vote “to build our future,” said Kalollova, who along with her friend Tilovoba planned to cast their ballot for Mirziyoyev because they felt he had the best plan for the future.
Shaboddin Alievey, 22, said voting was a personal commitment to democracy that “defines our future.” He said he supported the president.
Outside a separate station, gray-haired Yakue Mahmumov sat on a wooden bench, wearing a light-blue mask.
“It is our national responsibility” to vote, he said. Unlike the younger voters, he was tight-lipped about how he had voted. Pasted onto his jacket was a round sticker with the country’s flag that said, “I voted, have you?”
On the porch of the small polling station was a traditional Uzbek tapchan sofa. Made of wood, it is the size of a king-size bed, with cushions for seating and a table in the middle with tea, grapes, cookies and nuts.
With an eye to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one could enter the polling station until their temperature was taken and their hand sprayed with disinfectant.
Bibsora Khasanova, who was in charge of one of the Tashkent polling stations, said the elections had been 90 days in the making.
A list of the voters eligible to use her station was printed on computer paper and hung on the wall.
Seats were set aside in the room where the ballots were cast so that observers from the five parties could view the voting to ensure its integrity. Seats were also available for international observers.
Voters filled out paper ballots and then placed them in a clear plastic box.
Photos of all five candidates were posted on the walls of polling stations.
They included Mirziyoyev, 64; Narzulio Oblomurodov, 46, of the Ecological Party; and Alisher Qodirov, 46, of the Milliy Tiklanish Party, which is the country’s National Revival Democratic Party. The other two candidates were Bahram Abduhalimov, 62, of the Justice Social Democratic Party; and Maqsuda Varisova, 60, of the People’s Democratic Party.
The four candidates running against Mirziyoyev have been nominated by parties that support the president.
A report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe prior to the election said the concern was about who was eligible to run, rather than the transparency of the process.
“Eligibility to stand as a candidate is limited, including by length of residency and official language-proficiency requirements,” the report said. “Only registered political parties can nominate a candidate, and independent candidates are not allowed to run.”
Critics have said there was a lack of crucial debate. Bloggers and media commentators criticized senior officials and raised sensitive issues, but they never targeted the president himself.
In Uzbekistan, the president is limited to two five-year terms.
Mirziyoyev’s predicted victory will allow him to deepen his largely successful reform campaign and will likely lead to Uzbekistan opening up further to foreign trade and investment, while retaining a highly centralized political system.
He has rebuilt the resource-rich country’s ties with both Russia and the West, which had become strained under his predecessor, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first post-independence president.
Mirziyoyev has also lifted some restrictions on religious practices, reined in the powerful security services and oversaw a release of some political prisoners who had ended up behind bars due to Karimov’s zero-tolerance approach toward dissent.
In addition, he has pledged to cut poverty through rapid economic growth and gradually decentralize decision-making by devolving some powers to district councils.
Reuters contributed to this report.