New winds blow over the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan

Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev officially assumed office late in 2016, Uzbekistan has faced sweeping transformations.

UZBEK PRESIDENT Shavkat Mirziyoyev arrives for a meeting with China’s president in Beijing. (photo credit: REUTERS)
UZBEK PRESIDENT Shavkat Mirziyoyev arrives for a meeting with China’s president in Beijing.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev officially assumed office late in 2016, Uzbekistan has faced sweeping transformations. A long list of deep-rooted reforms was initiated targeting government functions, ministry structures, economy and society. On the eve of the parliamentary elections, which are set to take place on December 22, there is much evidence that the reforms are to be expanded into the parliamentary arena, which until recently has not been addressed in full.
Under Islam Karimov, the first president, Uzbekistan evolved into an authoritarian presidential regime with an acting bicameral parliament (Oliy Majlis and Senate). Although the parliament consisted of five different parties, there was no actual voice of opposition to the president among them. Furthermore, in 2007, just before the presidential elections, The Liberal-Democratic Party, which considered until then being an “opposition” one, nominated Karimov, thus allowing him to run and win a third term, an act that was controversial under the existing constitution.
For more than two decades, a practice of government agency control and persecution of opponents evolved. The first signs of a changing attitude toward the role and duties of the parliament can be traced back two years. During the summer summit in 2017, while addressing the parliament, Mirziyoyev harshly criticized the political parties for not fulfilling their political role, not being involved in sufficient political activity, and for being disconnected from the needs of the people.
In his address, the president urged the members to take a more active role in legislation and to be more active in their own proposals and critique of the government. More than a year later, in December 2018, the president presented yet another critical address pointing to the dysfunction of the parliament. Once again, Mirziyoyev underscored the need to strengthen the role of the Oliy Majlis and political parties in democratic reforms, the need for modernization of the country and formation of true political competition.
As the case with many other initiatives geared toward reform, they all originated from the presidential office. Lacking developed democratic institutions, a civil society and practices of open democratic debate and conduct, even the initiatives for democratic reforms originated from that office. A probe into the parliamentary activity and the elections campaign shows a tremendous shift compared to the former practices and the previous round of elections.
One of the first changes in the parliament following the presidential statements would be the growing use of the online pages and applications. Nowadays, not only the parliament but the parties have launched web pages. Some of them are still in the “under construction” stage (as with the pages of the Adolat and Peoples Democratic parties), or they are not updated much. But it is clear that all of them are trying to define their unique agendas, present their nominee lists, and open their ranks for supporters and exchange ideas with the public.
Moreover, recently the parties and the parliament have opened their own Facebook pages. These also don’t show much activity, nor do they have many followers yet, but this is actually a huge step for the country where access to Facebook was shut down as a matter of daily practice.
THE CENTRAL election commission also put up its own web and Facebook pages and even launched the mobile application Saylov 2019 (“Elections 2019”), designed to disseminate information to voters about the upcoming elections, procedures, whereabouts of polling places and the candidates.
Another surprising change was expressing (still indirect) critique of the president. It was Valentina Matviyenko, the chair of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, who stated during her recent visit to Uzbekistan that President Mirziyoyev had committed to joining the Eurasian Economic Union (led by Russia). Following this statement, the first deputy-chairman of the Senate, Sadik Safayev, declared that the issue was still open.
Even more severe opposition was sounded by the leader of the National Revival Party, Alisher Kadyrov, who compared joining the union to reconstitution of the Soviet Union and dilution of Uzbekistan’s sovereignty. The president has not yet made a public statement on this topic, so the debate could have been an outcome of a probe into public opinion or simply leverage in negotiations with Russia.
On November 10, for the first time in Uzbekistan, the leaders of the five officially registered parties held a live television debate. The debate presented an opportunity for the leaders to explain their election agenda and answer questions raised by opponents, journalists and bloggers. Although the debate was conducted in a very polite atmosphere, for the first time, journalists were given the opportunity to ask direct and sometime inconvenient questions, and make the party leaders answer them. Following this first round, more debates were scheduled on various topics.
One of the most striking novelties introduced recently into the parliamentary arena was a demand put forward to the parliament (once again by the president) to discuss and vote on the annual state budget proposed by the government. Following this, after a few hearings and some suggested corrections, on November 21, the parliament approved the budget, something it was never asked to do before. This deed allowed the parliament to function as a government-controlling agency.
There are no pre-election polls in Uzbekistan, so it is very hard to predict what the next parliament will look like. All five parties are now required to participate in the national elections, with no seats automatically assigned. It is safe to assume that the Liberal-Democrats, who are associated with the party of the acting president whose popularity is skyrocketing, will remain the biggest faction. However, the faith of the rest, due to an absence of a real difference between them, remains veiled and it is possible that a few will lose their seats.
It is not impossible that the popularity of the president and the inactive record of the existing parties will actually shrink the number of parties, thus reducing any possible future opposition. According to published statistics, the 750 candidates competing for the 150 seats in parliament are more educated (100% with academic degrees), much younger (32% younger than 40), and much more gender-balanced (40% women). Whether this will make them more vital, active or independent, only time will tell.
Indeed, recent reforms introduced to Uzbekistan resemble in many ways those in the USSR during the early Gorbachev era. The memory of the outcome of those reforms is still fresh among those politicians who began their career in Soviet times, President Mirziyoyev included. My guess is that although there is hesitation to put forward groundbreaking reforms, government officials will set a slow but confident pace toward their realization in the near future.
The author is from the Central Asian Research Unit, the Harry S. Truman Institute, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.