Crossroads Asia

Election Whitewashing, Uzbekistan Edition

A smattering of Western actors found their way to Uzbekistan to offer paeans to Tashkent’s political system.

Election Whitewashing, Uzbekistan Edition
Credit: Nicolas Raymond

Unsurprisingly, there was little left to chance in Uzbekistan’s most recent presidential election, held earlier this week. Following the September death of President Islam Karimov, elites quickly coalesced around then-Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, smoothing the transition process for Mirziyoyev to emerge as Karimov’s successor.

On Sunday, Mirziyoyev’s position as the second president of Uzbekistan was confirmed: With turnout purportedly at nearly 90 percent, Mirziyoyev managed to land over 88 percent of the votes cast. While this number isn’t quite the electoral stranglehold regional heads have earned elsewhere — topped by Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 98-percent margin in 2015 — the number, as others have surmised, may be an attempt to add some form of legitimacy to Mirziyoyev’s new position, and to allow for higher returns in future elections.

This election, of course, maintained all of the exercises in rigging we’ve come to expect from Central Asian presidential votes. As the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted in its assessment, the election “underscored the need for comprehensive reforms to address long-standing procedural and systematic shortcomings.” (The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, naturally, saw fit to praise the election.) Continued the OSCE:

[T]he dominant position of state actors and limits on fundamental freedoms undermine political pluralism and led to a campaign devoid of genuine competition … Media covered the election in a highly restrictive and controlled environment, and the state-defined narrative did not provide voters the opportunity to hear alternative viewpoints, the observers said.

Again, none of these developments are necessarily unexpected. Nor, unfortunately, was Tashkent’s ability to land a handful of Westerners willing to whitewash the election’s results. While Uzbekistan under Karimov never went as far as other post-Soviet dictatorships in finding Westerners eager to praise regional autocracies — in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, most especially — Tashkent has nonetheless recruited a series of election observers from Western democracies to hail Uzbekistan’s supposed efforts at democratization.

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Like the 2015 presidential election before it, a smattering of Western actors found their way to Uzbekistan to offer paeans to Tashkent’s political system. Thankfully, the Uzbekistani parliament’s website compiled these views for journalists and researchers alike. For instance, France’s Pierre-Emmanuel Dupont, who works with FACO Paris, said the elections were “held in the spirit of openness and transparency,” according to the Oliy Majlis’s synopsis. A Lithuanian MP, Valerijus Simulik, also reportedly claimed the elections were held in accordance with international requirements. And as the Oliy Majlis’s website related, Bernadette Mill, a councilor for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, echoed Simulik’s observations, claiming the elections were held in accordance with international standards.**

None of these election observers responded to questions from The Diplomat about their views on the vote.

Unlike Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, Tashkent made little attempt to broadcast these views to Western audiences, preferring to direct them instead toward a domestic populace. If Tashkent can find Westerners willing to shill for one of the world’s foremost dictatorships, any impetus for pushing efforts at democratization takes that much more of a hit moving forward.

**Update: After this article was published, Mill disputed the Oliy Majlis’s characterization of her views. “At no point during my recent visit to Uzbekistan did I state that the elections had been conducted, ‘in accordance with international standards,'” she wrote in an email. Her positive comments on the election related to the provision of Braille ballots and staffed nurseries at the polling stations she visited.