By PAUL GABRIEL
IT was a freezing morning and Samarkand was blanketed in thick snow following the heaviest blizzard the ancient city has experienced in recent years.
Yet things were far from a standstill as it was no ordinary day that Sunday, Dec 23, in Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation positioned on the Great Silk Road between Europe and Asia.
Democracy was in motion in this land of 27 million people that emerged as a sovereign nation in 1991 after more than a century of Russian rule – first as a part of the Russian empire and later as a component of the Soviet Union.
It was the day that Uzbeks came out in droves to elect, or rather re-elect, their president Islam Karimov, who had been the odds-on favourite to retain his presidency.
The incumbent was the main contender in a field of four in an election dismissed as inconsequential by Western analysts due to what they term as an “apparent limited nature of competition.”
Karimov’s legitimacy as candidate was another major point of contention.
The Uzbek constitution states that a president is allowed only two seven-year terms, and the former top Communist leader of the Soviet Uzbekistan era insisted he would be starting his second term, instead of a third, upon victory.
It was argued that since Karimov had only served one seven-year term (he was first elected to a five-year term, which was later extended by referendum), he was eligible to run for a second seven-year term.
Polling day was fixed and there was no one to defy the 69-year-old leader who has ruled the energy and resource-rich land before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Feelings of affinity run especially high for Karimov here. The president was born and orphaned in Samarkand, and there is a museum dedicated to him in this Silk Road City, which has marked 2,750 years of history.
“No one else can deliver for Uzbekistan like Islam Karimov has,” said Uktam Karimov, a medical college teacher in Samarkand, who did not wish to keep his ballot a secret.
“More than half the national budget this year was dedicated to the education and social sectors. Education is provided free of charge even at university level,” he stated.
There were 8,266 polling stations with the country divided into 14 voting regions. The total electorate was a massive 16.297 million, with eligible voting age set at 18.
To get their candidates registered, parties or public “initiative groups” were required to submit 800,000 signatures (5% of the population) along with their application to the Central Election Commission (CEC).
The mahalla (neighbourhood) committees represented the CEC at polling districts and polling centres.
The committees, led by influential grassroots folk, were pro-active and went the extra mile to ensure that those eligible were registered as voters.
Relatively small mahallas comprised of about 5,000 to 7,000 individuals who knew each other well.
No election fever
But across Uzbekistan, there appeared to be little interest in the year-end election.
The country was void of “election fever,” with no such thing as even coffee shop banter on the match-ups.
Except for a spattering of billboards showing the hard-line Karimov as a people’s man – one has him cuddling a child and in another, he is posing with Uzbekistan’s sporting hero, World Boxing Association heavyweight champion Ruslan Chagaev – there was no poster war to spice things up in the streets.
Significantly missing were fiery election rally speeches from the candidates, even though campaigning was said to have started at least three months earlier.
All this did not help to dispel widely held notions that the election was going to be a rigged affair.
The other three candidates approved by the CEC – Asliddin Rusmatov of the People’s Democratic Party, Dilorom Toshmuhammadova of the Adolat Social Democratic Party, and Akmal Saidov – were virtual unknowns considered to be friendly towards the government. Their participation was criticised as a mere window-dressing exercise.
But there was no doubt that Karimov enjoyed mass support among the people for his role in bringing development to Uzbekistan, one of the 11 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) of the former Soviet republic.
Voice of Uzbekistan deputy chief editor and TV talk show host Norkobil Jalil, a staunch follower of the president, said his support “comes from the heart and has nothing to do with my job.”
“We are proud of our great country and President Karimov is the right man to spearhead further change.
“It is no easy task overseeing change from the communist system to a more liberal and decentralised model,” said Norkobil, who has interviewed Karimov several times.
Similarly, Saidochmedor Isak, 65, the mahalla head at the biggest polling centre in Samarkand, did not hide his admiration for Karimov.
“Outsiders can say what they want. They have not even lived here for a day,” he said, referring to the accusations levelled at the president and the elections.
“Look at the changes here since our independence. This is a modern nation now, with a solid social security system in place. It is guaranteed in our Constitution that aged parents must be cared for by their children,” added Isak, who served as deputat (MP) during the Soviet era.
Jalal Rahimov, 76, heaped praise on the mahalla system of administration, which, he said, was unique to Uzbekistan, which has a total of 9, 941 mahalla.
“It is an exemplary basis for the co-ordination of information between the state, the government and local authorities. It represents a pilot model that should be followed by other modern societies,” said the retired geologist at another polling station in Samarkand, where an elderly man caused a stir by shouting at the top of his voice “I voted for the president, I voted for the president!”
From what was seen by almost 300 international observers invited to monitor the presidential polls, Uzbekistan does seem destined for greater times.
In the capital of Tashkent, Central Asia’s largest city, the infrastructure is remarkable with well-built roads and striking, modern buildings. There was an underground metro service in the city, a sure sign of progress, and there is a fast train service linking the capital to Samarkand, a journey of three-and-a-half hours.
S. Radhakrishnan, a legal consultant who was part of the six-member Malaysian team invited to observe the polls, said: “I found myself in a country that proved to satisfy all the standard requirements of a modern society.
“It was impressive to witness first-hand the reforms and steps being taken within the framework of fundamental legal principles.”
In the end, Karimov garnered 90.77% or 13.008 million of the total 14.765 million votes.
(The writer was part of the Malaysian observer mission who monitored the Uzbek presidential polls.)
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